Organized for Democracy? Left Challenges Inside the Democratic Party

Adam Hilton


Socialists make their own history, but not under conditions they choose. American socialists were starkly reminded of how the nightmarish weight of the past continues to haunt the present during the 2016 presidential nomination contest between independent, democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders and former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On the one hand, Sanders’ decision to forego a third party campaign and run as a Democrat provided him with a national audience, an opportunity to introduce democratic socialism to a new generation, and a mass-based fundraising vehicle that collected millions in small donations. On the other hand, running as a Democrat against the standard bearer of the party establishment seemed almost to guarantee that he would lose. And while he came closer than many expected, the outcome only appeared to confirm that when it comes to the Democratic Party, the left simply cannot win.

This essay examines the relationship between the left and the Democrats by playing on the double meaning of the term ‘challenges’ employed in its title. It seeks to undertake a strategic assessment of the ‘challenges’ facing left political power in the Democratic Party by drawing insights from the mixed results of various ‘challenges’ the left has presented inside the party historically. That strategic assessment must be based, I argue, on an institutional understanding of the Democratic Party as an organization, requiring the development of more sophisticated analytic tools than those typically employed by Marxists and others on the left.

The fundamental point to be drawn from this analysis is that while a robust, well-organized left can conceivably exercise power inside the Democratic Party, that power is unlikely to serve socialist ends of building the collective power of the working class due to the way the party is organized. Past efforts to transform the party organization into a party of different type, culminating in the New Politics movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, demonstrate the difficultly of overcoming this problem. Coupled with the unlikelihood of producing the labour-based third party that has eluded the American left for well over a century, the analysis presented here suggests that rather than dismissing the Democrats and pinning our hopes on a third party, the American left must rethink which kinds of goals can be accomplished in the realm of American party politics, and which cannot. The first step is to come to terms with the nature of American political parties, and specifically, the Democratic Party.

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