Socialists Need a Clear Confrontational Strategy to Win

DSA should use our electoral campaigns and elected offices to raise working-class consciousness and build working-class organization. That means rejecting attempts to placate the Democratic Party establishment.


A democratic socialist society is one in which everyone has a meaningful say in the major decisions affecting their lives, where the economy is owned by and run for the sake of the public good rather than the profits of the ultrarich. Marxists think that such a society can only be won by the efforts of the working class themselves. Our task as socialists is to build a mass, democratic working-class movement that can transform society.

If that’s right, then all our strategic decisions should be guided by the question: Does this help raise working-class consciousness and build working-class organization?

Sometimes there may seem to be trade-offs between doing these things and achieving more tangible near-term “wins” (for instance, passing legislation that helps working people).

Suppose you’re an elected official and part of a democratic socialist membership organization. Your organization votes to endorse a certain slate of candidates, who are challenging some of your incumbent “colleagues” in the legislature. But if you do endorse the challengers, legislative leaders will punish you — by, for instance, withholding important committee assignments or killing or defanging the bills you’re trying to pass.

It seems that New York City DSA’s Socialists in Office Committee — a committee including NYC-DSA’s elected politicians and chapter leaders that works together to decide strategy for the state legislature — recently faced a choice like this. So, they decided to allow the socialists in office to not endorse the full slate of DSA-endorsed challengers.

Some have argued that this was the right choice. But the episode raises strategic questions for the socialist movement beyond the particulars of this situation. Socialist legislators decided not to endorse their fellow socialist insurgents because of threats from the Democratic Party leadership, in the hope that doing so would allow them to pass legislation. That means, in this particular case, opting for an “insider” approach of accepting the power of Democratic Party leaders and trying to appease them instead of a more oppositional or “outsider” approach. 

The “outsider” approach would have involved making leadership’s threats of retaliation public and agitating DSA members — and, ideally, working people broadly — around the issue, mobilizing popular support and building awareness of how capitalists and their political representatives rule. As they’ve done in the past, New York socialists and their allies could harness this mass popular pressure to force through reforms that help working people, even against establishment resistance.

This approach, similar to the one Bernie Sanders successfully adopted when he first became mayor of Burlington and faced intransigent opposition from the City Council, rests on the possibility of educating and bringing more ordinary people into the political process and upending business-as-usual. The insider approach, by contrast, tends in the opposite direction: making deals in private, reinforcing the widespread idea that governing is the job of savvy, good-willed individual politicians, and downplaying the conflict between socialists and the establishment — and, by extension, the conflict between capitalists and the working class. This means that the insider approach, over time, works against building class consciousness and organization.

To date, NYC-DSA’s electeds have mixed outsider tactics with some insider moves. As we see it, only the outsider approach will really build our power. Insider tactics don’t deliver the goods, they don’t provide us with the right tools for the moment, and they won’t help build working-class power.

The False Promise of Insider-ism

The recent history of New York State politics offers some instructive lessons on the dangers of following an insider strategy.

In 2014, progressive law professor Zephyr Teachout ran for New York governor, seeking the endorsement of the Working Families Party (WFP). Many WFP activists wanted to endorse her against the conservative incumbent, Andrew Cuomo. But Andrew Cuomo struck a deal with the WFP, clinching its endorsement for himself. In exchange, Cuomo promised to help win a Democratic majority in the state Senate and support WFP’s policy priorities, including a $10.10 state minimum wage and free public college for undocumented students. The WFP was also being pressured to endorse Cuomo by many of the leaders of its union backers.

Was the deal worth it? Apparently not. Cuomo didn’t help the Democrats take the Senate, and in fact secretly supported senators affiliated with the Independent Democratic Conference — Democrats who caucused with Republicans to block liberal legislation. Cuomo backed away from his policy commitments to WFP, too. More vindictively, he created a fake “feminist” third party to try to undercut the WFP’s vote share. And because WFP leaders merely considered endorsing Teachout, many large unions (whose more conservative leadership supported Cuomo) left the party anyway.

One lesson of this experience is that an apparent “trade-off” between passing legislation and defying leadership may be an illusion: there is no guarantee that party leaders will keep their word or support your legislation, even if you do what they want.

In 2016, Cuomo did end up passing two major progressive priorities: a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave. Ironically, though, it seems this was due not to WFP’s attempted horse-trading with the governor but outside Left pressure, including the insurgent Democratic Party primary campaign that Teachout ran two years prior after the WFP declined to endorse her. She surprisingly won a respectable 34 percent of the vote. These significant concessions also came in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s first presidential run, during which WFP endorsed against Cuomo’s friend and personal favorite Hillary Clinton.

Later legislative gains under the Cuomo administration were made possible by the Democratic recapture of the Senate, itself given momentum by the insurgent gubernatorial campaign of Cynthia Nixon and other progressives backed by WFP, DSA, and other Left-leaning forces. This included a successful effort to oust the IDC Democrats in 2018.

In short: as even some in the WFP later recognized, the WFP and other Left forces were able to win progressive policies from Cuomo not through trying to play nice, but through oppositional electoral challenges and grassroots organizing (like the Fight for $15 campaign). An important lesson is that the Left can’t be afraid of upsetting the political establishment, and we won’t win by trying to play nice with our political enemies. Our potential power lies in building a mass base, rooted in the labor movement and in working-class communities.

The Right Tactics for the Moment

None of that is to deny the importance of coming up with a policy program and trying to pass it, as the SIO and socialist legislators across the country are doing. But that program must be part of a broader political vision of how we empower working-class people to fight for themselves.

In developing this vision, we should remember that the U.S. socialist movement is still quite small and weak. Longtime DSA activist David Duhalde argued recently that a main question for socialist electoral politics today is “how do socialist elected officials co-govern in center-Left majorities while being accountable to their democratic (small d) organizations and progressive movements that elected them?” While the first part could be an important question for the future, we don’t agree it’s a main question today.

First, given socialists’ limited numbers in office and the unreliable “center-leftness” of even Democratic majorities, our elected officials have little ability to “co-govern” in the sense of making large-scale policy interventions. Look no further than our socialist delegation in Congress. For all their achievements in changing popular discourse, Sanders and the Squad have mostly been unable to push through major Left policy priorities, even with Democratic control of all branches of government.

Second, Left organizations and movements are still relatively small and disorganized. We need to prioritize building our movements and organizations, so they can actually provide our elected officials with the popular muscle to resist capitalist counter-pressures and to hold them accountable when necessary. Doing that means focusing on confronting our enemies in the Democratic Party, not governing with them.

It might be more accurate to say that the key issue for socialist electoral strategy today is: how do socialist politicians help build their organizations and progressive movements to put themselves in a better position to intervene politically?

To take a more distant historical example: it’s common for U.S. democratic socialists to draw inspiration from Scandinavian social democracy. But social democratic parties in those countries weren’t able to pass serious reforms until they were the largest or second-largest parties in parliament (alongside far-left parties also winning sizable vote shares). Left parties there were not able to pass the measures that created the welfare state until they could form their own governments. The idea that we can, given our current size and relative disconnection from the working class, elect and legislate our way to tangible victories isn’t borne out by even the examples of “reformist” parties that were most successful at forging class and party coalitions.

Building Working-Class Power

We fear that the long-term result of favoring “insider” legislative tactics will be to take us away from the tasks of raising working-class consciousness and building working-class organization. In order to meet Democratic Party leaders’ demands, we will be forced increasingly to downplay our socialist identity, our belonging to a collective project, and our conflicts of interest with and independence from the Democratic establishment. Then left-wing politicians will be even more dependent on cutting backroom deals and less able to do the movement-building that could give them independent leverage in the legislature — let alone building the kind of movement that can win socialism.

This is why endorsements matter, even if they seem mostly symbolic. By endorsing each other and running as a unified slate — especially when doing so aggravates the political establishment — socialist politicians can better signal to the public that they are committed as a bloc, distinct from the corporate mainstream of the Democratic Party, to achieving their own pro-worker aims against elite resistance. When endorsements are treated as a matter of individual discretion and negotiated over with corporate Democrats, it becomes much harder to convey our distinctive identity and project to people.

This is also a big part of why Democratic leaders care who we endorse. After all, it’s very unlikely that the SIO’s endorsements would make much of a difference in the outcome of any race right now. But the very idea of endorsing challengers against incumbents threatens the establishment. To let socialist members of the Democratic Party caucus in Albany endorse against establishment incumbents would show that party leaders don’t have their own house in order. By the same token, if the party leadership can discipline our politicians, they show us — and our allies and, ultimately, our base — who’s boss. We embolden our political opponents to be more aggressive against us in the future, and we begin to accept that they have certain kinds of power over us.

None of this is to say that this is easy. We’re figuring out these questions as we go, and we appreciate how stressful and difficult it must be to be a socialist elected official. And we as DSA need to do more to support our elected officials, including having a clearer strategy. We should prioritize building up DSA and other progressive, pro-worker organizations, agitating for a socialist alternative to the status quo, and better rooting our movement in the working class (with the ultimate goal of a full-fledged workers’ party).

To their credit, DSA’s elected representatives, in NYC and elsewhere, have shown time and again that they’re ready to break with the “normal” way of doing politics. We need look no further than NYC-DSA’s SIO for many examples of the outsider strategy in action. From joining hunger strikes to denouncing Democratic Party arm-twisting in the Albany budget process, from calling out “colleagues” for taking money from the fossil fuel industry to organizing mass mobilizations to tax the rich and win new housing protections, New York’s socialists in office have demonstrated their commitment to taking on the establishment and building a working-class political alternative.

More recently, our legislators showed backbone and clarity in denouncing and voting no on Governor Kathy Hochul’s state budget proposal, which gives away billions in taxpayer money to fund a billionaire’s new football stadium while offering little for working people. (At the same time, the fact that the socialists in office didn’t vote as a bloc on every piece of the budget speaks to the need for DSA to sharpen its understanding of how to navigate Albany politics.)

Now is the time for DSA as a whole to clarify our collective strategy and double down on the importance of using campaigns and elected offices to build popular power “from the bottom up,” as Bernie would say. That means also that DSA members and allies must figure out how to aggressively organize to support our elected officials in our fights year-round.

To develop our strategy more concretely, we should learn from the successes and failures of the many insurgent movements and politicians in the United States (and other countries) in the neoliberal era, from Bernie’s time as mayor of Burlington to the Richmond Progressive Alliance, from Chicago City Council’s democratic socialist caucus to the growing progressive movement in Rhode Island and beyond. We plan to contribute to this project in The Call and elsewhere, and we hope others do too.

Nick French is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Previously, he organized with East Bay DSA and UAW Local 2865 and worked as communications director for Jovanka Beckles’s successful campaign for AC Transit Board. Neal Meyer is an editor of The Call. Nick and Neal are members of NYC-DSA and DSA's Bread & Roses caucus, and they co-write the Left Notes newsletter, which covers politics, the labor movement, and philosophy from a democratic socialist perspective.