On Sunday January 16th, long-time socialist organizer and strategist Mike Parker passed away after a long fight with cancer. In the next weeks, The Call will be publishing some of his thoughts and writing, as well as a short political history of his life. You can read more about Mike’s life here.
The following is adapted from a May 4, 2021 interview with Mike Parker conducted by Jeremy Gong. The subject of the interview was the relationship between political action in elections and the state and socialist strategy. Parker argues that, in order to win socialism, political action is essential. Socialist organizers should use electoral and legislative activism to help build broad organization and raise working-class consciousness.
Parker was an autoworker and union activist in Detroit from 1975 to 2007, and is renowned for his writing on union democracy and “lean production.” He has been a leader of and contributor to Labor Notes since its founding in 1979.
In the late 1960s, he was one of the lead organizers behind the foundation of the Peace and Freedom Party, an independent party meant to unite and channel the radical energies of the 1960s movements, especially the anti-war and Black Power movements, into independent political action. The Peace and Freedom Party collaborated with the Black Panther Party at the latter’s height to run Panther leaders Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton for President and Congress respectively.
After moving to California in 2007, Parker became a leader in the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a broad, membership-based movement and electoral coalition with unions and other progressive groups in the mid-sized, diverse, and working-class city of Richmond, California. RPA made national headlines when it elected a Green Party and socialist mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, and successfully fought to impose pollution controls and taxes on the Chevron refinery in its town. Since then Richmond has repeatedly been at the forefront of progressive developments in California, from raising the minimum wage to rent control to redirecting money from a bloated police budget to services that reduce poverty and increase community safety. In 2018 Parker was a leader in the DSA- and Bernie Sanders-backed state legislature campaign of RPA city councilperson Jovanka Beckles, which he wrote about here. Parker wrote about the RPA experience here, here, and here.
— Jeremy Gong
Socialist strategy should start with an analysis of capitalism, of where power lies in capitalist society. Capitalism is a class society in which a small elite controls most of the fundamental resources, and everyone else has to work for them in order to live. The capitalist class is not going to give up this wealth and power voluntarily. So if we’re talking about moving from capitalism to socialism, we mean that this powerful capitalist class has to be destroyed. The working class must build its own power and then remove the capitalists from power.
As the majority that makes society run, the working class has enormous potential power of its own under capitalism. Therefore the problem for socialists is: How does the working class come to be conscious of this power, and then come to exercise it?
In the workplace, this is clear. We know that workers and bosses have fundamentally opposed interests, and that therefore workers need to build their own organizations, unions, to fight for their interests. In the process of class struggle, workers’ consciousness and power grows.
That analogy has to extend to politics. Workers have to learn how to organize together to fight politically against the bosses who already have their own political organizations, namely the Democratic and Republican parties. Workers can’t limit their organizations to economic struggles, and simply accept the rules of our society at large that the bosses have laid down through their political dominance.
Politics Is About Power, Not Personalities or Issues
Fighting politically is a sufficient threat to bosses that they will do everything they can to prevent people from doing it. Society has developed all sorts of ways to keep working people from organizing politically as a class.
First, the capitalist class naturally has far more resources at its disposal to begin with. And it’s much easier for them to quickly organize those resources politically than it is for millions of unorganized workers to pool their limited wealth.
Second, millions of workers who might be unhappy with the status quo are nevertheless resigned to it: they accept inequality and injustice not because they think it’s fair, but because they feel powerless to change it. This resignation is therefore self-reinforcing, since the smaller the number of workers that participate in movements for social justice, the weaker are those who do fight.
Third, the political system is incredibly complicated. It’s very hard to be active in politics in general, without spending an enormous amount of time on understanding lots of detail that shifts from institution to institution. It’s not easy to get involved. And once you do get involved, you find your head is spinning, trying to figure out what you can do and can’t do, and all the different procedures.
Fourth, we’re raised to believe all kinds of myths which get in the way. Myth number one is that the U.S. is a democracy. Because the government is elected through a vote, somehow this is a democracy. We have to defeat that notion. The real power in society isn’t even in the government. You can elect the city council. You can elect the president (indirectly) and Congress. But capitalists can carry out a capital strike—withdraw investment and weaken the economy in order to punish pro-worker governments—and governments have to cajole capital even to do a little bit of what society needs. All these things give the capitalist class tremendous power, regardless of who’s elected and what’s passed. It’s not that the government can’t do anything. It’s just that it’s limited in what it can do.
Another myth is that politics is about electing great individuals, some very smart people who will do what you want. Because politics is so complicated, don’t try to figure it out yourself; elect somebody who’s very smart. On what basis do you choose that person? Well, choose that person based on their personal biography, their family relations, what they say in their speeches. It’s all about the individual.
Similarly, progressives are often focused on taking the right positions on various issues. While specific issues are important, and we fight around these issues as they arise, the truth is that the real issue for us is the question of power. It’s not about what issue the candidate stands for, but instead whether they have the power to actually try to implement changes. And power, for the Left, can only flow from mass organization.
Say we’re running an individual campaign for Congress, and the person declares themselves a socialist. That’s great. But the question is, is that campaign actually organizing people to build their own political organization? Or is it thinking in terms of “working the system,” the system which has been created by and for capitalist interests? You can nominate somebody who can run a good campaign, but in the end they can’t accomplish anything as an individual. And so either they’ll be cast aside by events because they’ll be irrelevant when they get elected, they’ll be coopted into supporting the policies they ran against, or they’ll become a pariah stuck in futile opposition.
But they have a choice to use that campaign instead to say, “We’re organizing people to make this fight bigger than just my seat in Congress.” By declaring openly that you’re organizing with ordinary people outside of Congress, and giving that organization a name and an identity, it becomes a broader collective effort.
Electing people is worthless unless we use political action to build mass organization that declares itself as being on the side of workers. That doesn’t mean it’s declaring a new party right now — there are tactical and strategic questions involved in that — but it’s about trying to get people to understand their need for their own independent organization in some form.
The truth is that all the complaints about how hard it is to get on the ballot as being the reason for running in the Democratic Party are nonsense. It’s pretty easy to get on the ballot in most places when there are real movements. We did it in California in an amazingly short period of time, back in the sixties. The Green Party has managed to get on the ballot in lots of states. Getting on the ballot isn’t the hard part.
The real challenge is that a lot of working people think that the Democratic Party is the party that reflects them and organizes them in politics. But since the Democratic Party is actually controlled by the capitalist class, by reinforcing that notion that we have to focus simply on electing Democrats, that we need the Democratic Party for its name, what we’re really doing is accepting workers’ disorganization and their reliance on capitalist leadership in politics.
So what’s so wrong with this? Again, using a workplace analogy. Imagine that somebody says, we have a company union or company association already, and this company union claims to stand for better wages and conditions, so we don’t need an independent union. But of course the company union tends to be dominated by the mid-level managers. Because the leadership of the organization shares the boss’s interests, the organization is not very useful for fighting the boss. Nobody on the left would have a hard time understanding what’s wrong with that. But somehow they don’t approach political action the same way — that there are two sides with different interests. And that’s because they tend to approach politics from the point of view of issues and personalities instead of from the point of view of power and organization.
We must fight against the underlying notion that there’s a big tent that can include both us and the bosses within the Democratic Party. This is not possible. We must begin to build independent organization of some form now, and ultimately an independent working-class party.
Organization is Power
Let’s put it another way. DSA founder Michael Harrington said he was for “the left wing of the possible,” justifying an approach that kept the Left within the Democratic Party. Socialism isn’t possible now, and neither is an independent workers’ party, so the logic goes.
But what makes things “possible” to people? It’s not what really is possible in some abstract sense, but what people think they have the power to accomplish, or what they think somebody else has the power to accomplish for them.
We have to think not in terms of what is possible given our current understanding of power, but what power can we get to make what we want possible in the future? It’s a totally different way of looking at things. And if we build that power, then we can go far beyond what Harrington considered possible.
Many on the Left have claimed that the Bernie Sanders Democratic primary campaigns show that we need to abandon ideas about political independence. I think we should draw the opposite lesson. What made the Sanders campaigns at all viable was the fact that they had the feeling of independence, that Bernie had been an independent for years. People understood that he worked with Democrats and liberals, but the fact that he maintained sufficient independence meant that people felt, when they started working on his campaign, that they were creating an organization of their own. Unfortunately, that organization did not persist after the campaign ended and was absorbed into electing the Democratic nominee.
I’m not for declaring a new formal political party today. But the independent political organization we need now has several characteristics. Number one is that it’s effectively independent from the Democratic Party, it’s not following the Democratic Party line, or forced to endorse Democratic nominees like Biden, and it’s willing to challenge Democrats. This organization needs to make clear that the enemy is not just Republicans but capitalism, and that the capitalist class exerts influence through the Democratic Party too. So number one, we need to create that kind of understanding. For now, we can do that without having a formal, legal party, but eventually we will need one.
Number two, we have to create whatever organization we can create that has an identity that goes beyond just the individual candidates. There are a range of tactics and organizational forms that this could take, and we see some first steps in this direction now. There are slates of socialist candidates connected to independent organizations, like the DSA slates in Chicago and New York City and the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) here in California. And you have the Squad, which is informal but is at least more of a collective project than just individual politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez acting on their own.
Some people think that independent political organization is a side issue, and that the main issues are policies and candidates. This is wrong. Because workers will only develop class consciousness and be able to exercise their power through mass organization, building this organization, building a political party or party-like organizations, is the main task when it comes to political action.
Organization is essential, for one, because it is necessary in order to train a lot of people to do politics. We obviously can’t rely on a few good politicians and their staffs. Ordinary people are capable of learning all sorts of things needed in politics. Organization allows a division of labor, which creates opportunities for busy, working people to contribute small amounts to a larger whole. And people will learn how to do this on the job, through the struggles which only organization makes possible.
Second, this experience is empowering for people. One reason why radical activism tends to be restricted to relatively better-off, college educated, or middle-class people is that such people have had experiences in life that are more empowering. They have more options in life, are told that they can do anything they want, even change the world. It is less of a stretch for these people to sacrifice their nights and weekends for socialist politics because they expect to accomplish big things. People who are poorer or whose experience of life has been disempowering — where they’re expected to do what they’re told, they are oppressed and restricted at work, at home, or at school — are naturally not going to be as likely to give up their limited time for making big changes that seem impossible. That is why organization is so important for working-class politics: it supports people in making small but meaningful contributions, which empowers them to feel that they can make bigger contributions, and that real change in society is not only desirable but possible if they take part in a movement.
Third, organization helps make leadership more formal. Not everybody has to learn every complicated thing about politics. That’s what leaders are for. Rank-and-file members can choose pieces they will be responsible for and then elect leaders they can depend on to be responsible for other, bigger pieces. You can have leaders without organization, but organization means you can have clear and accountable leadership, and train new leaders. This can’t be done without mass organization.
Finally, political organization will help working people understand their common interests — those fighting for union rights can join with others fighting for rent control or environmental regulations, and together they can elect candidates on a comprehensive program that speaks to all of these issues. And the struggles between the political organizations of the bosses and those of the workers clarifies the real conflicts in society.
Therefore, the most important thing is not which issues AOC supports or doesn’t. It is that, for example, the Squad and Sanders help develop a mass organization of the kind that can recruit ordinary people, an organization with its own internal life and democratic structures that hold these politicians accountable. This way larger numbers of working people can identify their politics with a national political project, and understand that they are part of an organization with its own interests that is at least somewhat independent of both the Republican and Democratic parties. People can take positions on issues, become leaders in their local context. It can be tighter or looser, and it can be called whatever you want. But the important thing is that people can contribute more than just giving money and votes. That there is an identity that can be spread, beyond just the politicians, and which helps reorganize political conflict in a productive way that isn’t just about personalities or liberals versus conservatives, but about workers versus bosses. This is, to some extent, what we have done here with the RPA.
We can’t predict how we will get to a new formal political party of and for the working class. What we’ll end up with, if we end up with something good, will undoubtedly come from lots of pieces that have tried lots of things. We should not take a sectarian attitude towards progressives working within the Democratic Party or be dismissive of those trying to build the Green Party. We want to work with all of them. We can understand that ultimately we may actually end up being in the same place. But what’s important is the extent to which we focus on building organization now that does not depend on the Democratic Party but which could actually challenge the Democratic Party.
Electoral Politics Isn’t Enough on It’s Own
Ultimately we have to be concerned with more than political action. First of all, many workers will initially gain that sense of empowerment, which supports more radical political consciousness and organization, in workplace struggles. This is what the rank-and-file strategy is about. It is not a plan for labor organizing. It is a strategy for placing socialists in shop-floor level struggles — the most elementary place where disempowered workers can start to win changes for themselves — in order to elevate workers’ sense of power. Only on the basis of those fundamental experiences of class struggle should we expect millions of workers to eventually not only support, but fight for more radical ideas, whether that means Medicare for All, a new labor party, or socialism.
And to truly transform society, we need more than state power. We can elect people, we can even, if we’re lucky, take control of the government. And we can use that power to make some changes. But there are limits to that, as we’ve learned from historical experiences, for example in Chile where a democratically elected socialist government was overthrown by a coup. Or more recently in Greece, where the left-wing Syriza party took power with popular support in 2015, but was forced by international capitalist power to carry out austerity and privatization.
If we win state power, we want to be able to defend that power. And part of that will be power on the shop floor. And part of that will be mass mobilization and even possibly having to win over sections in the military. There’s lots of possibilities. Luckily we don’t have to make a detailed blueprint for all of these scenarios right now. But it is clearly naive to think that socialism can come about simply by winning an election, after which the capitalist class will say, “Okay, you’ve won, we’ll concede.”
In order to take over the state to bring about socialism, we have to challenge both the state, which is the means of enforcing capitalist rule, and we have to challenge the capitalist class in the economy, and that means workers taking power where they are, on the shop floor. And some of that will include “violating laws.” Can you imagine all the problems when we start trying to nationalize companies? What happens when the Supreme Court blocks us, fully in line with the Constitution and the precedents which are meant to protect private property?
So it’s impossible to predict how things will play out. For now, the exact forms are less important than building working-class power and consciousness. And that means workers need to have their own organizations in politics just as they must have strong unions at work.