Sometimes we can learn lessons from our adversaries. I better explain myself before I get in trouble.
No decisive and enduring shift in class relations in our country is possible without a decisive shift of power in the state sphere. Other things are necessary – mass sentiment, grassroots organization, popular insurgency, broad alliances, division in your adversary’s camp, etc. – but by themselves these are not sufficient to fundamentally change the trajectory of the class struggle.
Only when combined with control over some, if not all, of the levers of state power (presidency, Congress, governmental agencies, courts, military, and more) does the wish for fundamental change turn into a real possibility.
This understanding informed, as we now know, the priorities and practical activity of right-wing extremism in the 1970s and ever since then. Everything was (and is) done with an eye to winning elective office and filling appointive positions in the governmental apparatus.
Towards this end, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was a crucial breakthrough, giving a powerful impetus to the long-term ascendency of the right wing of the Republican Party. Once in command, the arc of right- wingers, stretching from Reagan to Gingrich to Bush-Cheney, turned the state into the lead actor in a ferocious capitalist counteroffensive – politically, economically and culturally.
The state’s role and functions were not so much downsized as recast. On the one hand, it became champion and facilitator of accelerated globalization, financialization, and redistribution of income (or in Marxist talk, surplus value) to the wealthiest families and corporations.
On the other hand, the state employed its considerable force to crush the oppositional forces – the working class and labor in the first place.
To a large degree, this offensive was successful – union membership declined; wages, benefits, and jobs were lost; the traditional strongholds of working class power were weakened; the social safety net was savaged, and the forward movement for racial, gender and other forms equality was halted. At the same time the power and profits of capital were restored and augmented.
There is a lesson here for those at the other end of the political spectrum. It is simple: the electoral arena is of overriding importance. The notion that electoral politics has little progressive potential, that it is “politics lite,” that it pales in the face of direct action (an unnecessary juxtaposition) is mistaken and harmful.
Furthermore, a relationship with the Democratic Party isn’t heresy or something to profusely apologize for.
Now, it’s true that there is always a danger of losing one’s political identity and independence in the mainstream of politics (which is where the left should be), but to turn it into a reason to boycott (or participate only half-heartedly in) the electoral arena is a recipe for marginalization. In fact, I would argue that for the left, a relationship to the Democratic Party at this stage of struggle is a strategic necessity and later on probably a tactical requirement.
In 2008, there was no way to defeat the right without such a relationship. The same can be said about this fall’s elections.
What is more, there is no evidence that it backburners the struggle for political independence. In fact, new forms of political independence have developed in recent years in important ways, but differently than most of us on the left imagined. To our surprise, they took shape within the framework of the two-party system, not outside of it, and within labor and other major social organizations, operating under the broad canopy of the Democratic Party.
If an alternative people’s party is going to emerge (and we should persuasively make the case for one as we participate in existing struggles), these new independent expressions will be its basis and combine with forms operating outside the two party system, such as the Working Families Party, the Progressive Party, and others.
Finally, the state in our society is a historical product and is structured to produce and then reproduce on an extended scale the profits and power of the transnational corporations and banks. Obviously this is an enormous advantage to the right since it favors capitalism in the raw. But still it doesn’t follow that the left should avoid the state like the plague.
Properly organized and united, the working class and people’s movement can win positions in government and harness them to shift public policy, institutions and agencies to the advantage of working people and their allies. And in so doing, they will create the practical and ideological conditions for more radical changes.
Frederick Engels wrote in the autumn of his life:
With this successful utilization of universal suffrage … an entirely new method of proletarian struggle came into operation … It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organized, offer the working class still further levers to fight these very state institutions. The workers took part in elections to particular diets [parliaments], to municipal councils and to trades courts; they contested with the bourgeoisie every post in the occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had a say. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.
Note that Engels doesn’t allow the class form to conceal the political possibilities of participation in “bourgeois” politics and institutions and political structures.
With the elections a few months away, we should quickly digest the lesson.