The “dirty break” is the name of the strategy advanced by the Democratic Socialists of America’s self-styled Marxist pole, the Bread & Roses caucus. In essence, the dirty break idea is to run socialists on the Democratic Party ballot line with the aim of consolidating sufficient forces to break off and form a social democratic party at some undetermined point in the future. With the Democratic Party underperforming in the November 3 election, what lessons have the Dirty Break Socialists (henceforth DBS) learned and what path forward do they envision?
By Ahmed K. 12/02/2020
For the DBS and the rest of the DSA, the election day delivered a bad outcome for Democrats overall, but it was a good night for the left and, in particular, for democratic socialism. In support of this idea, they cite the success of DSA-endorsed candidates and ballot initiatives. From a Marxist perspective, however, deeper questions need to be asked than whether this or that candidate for office won an election. Are these successes increasing working class confidence and power? Are they heightening proletarian class consciousness and independence? Do they advance the socialist movement beyond electoralism? The answer to all of these key questions is no.
Balance of the Election
For elections to serve socialist strategy, that is to truly serve the interest of working people, they must be approached in a different way than is typical under bourgeois democracy. For typical bourgeois politicians, the aim is to win 50 percent plus 1 of the vote and take over management of the capitalist state because their goal is to simply “manage” capitalism. By design, bourgeois electoralism demobilizes and disorganizes the class struggle of the proletariat. Socialist praxis, by contrast, is summarized by the term “revolutionary parliamentarism.” This means that in bourgeois elections and parliaments, socialists aim to connect extra-parliamentary class struggles to parliamentary debates; to expose bourgeois democracy as a limited, incomplete form of democracy that will never secure working-class liberation or solve the crises of capitalism; to educate the class on the chicanery and betrayals of reformist politicians; and to always put the emphasis on mass action and the necessity for the proletariat to secure power. In other words, revolutionary socialists or communists participate in elections not as “parliamentary parties” but as “combat parties.” And this is because their goal is not to continue business as usual but to question and undo the institutions of class power.
The 2020 election was perceived by the masses of Biden voters – nearly 80 million, a record – as a referendum on Trump rather than as an expression of support for their candidate. What program the Democratic Party had paled in comparison to its incessant messaging about the need to rid the country of Trump because of the threat of “fascism”. The Democratic Party did not offer solutions to any of the crises confronting the working class, from the COVID-19 pandemic to that of unemployment and climate collapse. In this vacuum, Trump too gained a near-record vote total: over 10 million more than in 2016, including increases among Latino and Black voters. This is astonishing given Trump’s direct role in the deaths of over 250,000 people in the United States from COVID-19 and in the ongoing economic collapse – and the fact that the Democratic Party has been telling everyone that he is the next Hitler. Further, the Democrats lost ground in the House and did not gain any in the Senate. Pollsters’ predictions of a “blue tsunami” were way off the mark.
Despite record voter turnout in this election, we have to keep in mind that bourgeois democracy in the United States is uniquely antidemocratic. Up to 35 percent of eligible voters did not vote, whether because of voter suppression or active indifference given how clearly unappealing the two candidates were to the working class. Further, 47 million immigrants, almost 15 percent of the US population, are not legally permitted to vote. It is usual in U.S. elections for the number of non-voters to exceed by far the number of votes going to each of the bourgeois candidates, and the basic pattern seems to hold in 2020, albeit not as conspicuously as in prior elections.
Recriminations by the Democratic Party Mainstream
For these underwhelming results, the Democratic leaders ignore the party’s own massive faults, not least among them the failure to mobilize Chicano voters in the Texas-border region, where Sanders won big victories in the primaries, or, again, more generally to provide solutions to the crises of capitalism. Instead, the party has sought to blame the left of their base. The targets of the party’s recriminations include Black and Latino activists and youth. In reality, these constituencies infused into the Biden campaign the enthusiasm that might well have played the determining role in pushing Biden over the finish line to victory. The Democratic leaders also fault the left’s support for police defunding, Medicare for All, and “socialism.”
This internecine rift in the Democratic Party is noteworthy because the largest and most prominent socialist organization in the United States, the DSA, is now deep in the muck. This is a wholly unsurprising result of DSA’s unwillingness to break from the Democratic Party. For the Jacobin crowd, increasingly indistinguishable from a progressive liberal one, the most urgent demand seems to be that the Democrats recognize the left’s contribution to Biden’s victory. “What Biden should or should not do,” “what if Biden had knocked on more doors,” and “fantasizing about a Biden cabinet” seem to be their burning questions. This is the logical outcome of subordinating socialist principles to the opportunism and electoralism that have always been the disorganizers of the working class. On this point we offer only one further observation. Imagine a situation in which a blue tsunami did occur. Would the Democratic Party “thank” the left? Would it open the doors of the Biden cabinet and the party leadership to the “democratic socialists”? What happens to the democratic socialist movement when Biden, as is the most likely scenario, fails to deliver any solutions for the masses suffering unemployment, COVID-19-induced mass death, and other punishments from the current crisis? Already in the transition, Biden is moving decisively to the right, ditching his promises to address the climate, immigration, and racism. His administration promises a restoration of the liberal order that brought the crises and devastation that produced Trump in the first place. Yet instead of educating the working class on this, the message of DSA-endorsed politicians, with the tacit support of DBS, is that the Democrats need the left and the left needs the Democrats.
Current Status of DSA Dirty Break Strategy
The implications for the strategy of the dirty break represent a fundamental question for the newly politicised youth and middle strata of the class which constitute the bulk of the base of the DSA. A large – too large – segment of the socialist movement is now debating who Biden should nominate to his cabinet and why the Democrats are not playing fair. In contrast to such class-collaborationist considerations, the socialist movement should instead be drawing clear and accurate lessons from the experience of the Biden campaign – and, before that, from the swift bureaucratic drubbing of the Sanders campaign and Sanders’s subsequent obsequious support of Biden. If the exponents of the dirty break are serious, shouldn’t these latest experiences hasten the pace of the break?
Unfortunately, the position of DBS has not appreciably changed and the distant horizon of the eventual break remains just that – a distant horizon. Seth Ackerman, one of the main theorists of the DBS, whose 2016 Jacobin article, “A Blueprint for a New Party,” the DBS and much of the DSA treat as their manifesto, recapitulated his original argument in a Jacobin Youtube interview on November 11. While for fabled Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, Marxism was a “philosophy of action” – the fighting creed of a conscious working class with a “duty to defend itself from and struggle against all manifestations of opportunism” – for Ackerman it is clearly not. Ackerman’s socialism is nothing more than a technocratic social science, replete with electoralism and the language of incentives instead of the class struggle and working-class power.
For both the interviewer and Ackerman, the main enemies are the “corporate Democrats” rather than the Democratic Party in its very nature. While expressing skepticism that the DSA is the new party envisioned in his original thesis, Ackerman does see the down-ballot democratic socialists as providing a model for a “new pole.” As the interview goes on it becomes clear that DBS is, in fact, a rehash of lesser evilism: a significant portion of the interview is about how the “blueprint” recommends itself because it avoids the risk of splitting the vote and thus helping Republicans. Asked what stops the Democrats from changing the rules of the primary system to prevent the possibility of left wingers winning, Ackerman responds that primary rules are set by states and not by the national Democratic Party, and that primaries are run by state governments. If the party does change the rules, they “would have to deal with the consequences.” They would create a huge incentive for the left to take over the party. Right now there’s no incentive to take over the party organization in any state because state parties don’t get to decide much, the party organization is not powerful right now. The Democrats, in this assessment, prefer a diffuse system because it weakens party activists. For Ackerman, the answer is merely technocratic.
And incomplete: several questions remain unanswered. DBS have had almost five years to work through and learn lessons from applying the dirty break concept. And yet, they are unable to draw conclusions on the limitations of electoral paths to socialism. Moreover, what happens when the bourgeoisie and its politicians decide they have let this socialism nonsense go far enough and strike back? If, as DBS holds, the national Democratic Party does indeed lack power and does not act like a typical political party, what explains the swift termination of the Sanders campaign and his immediate subsequent submission to party discipline? It becomes ever more apparent that the DBS is a strategy for socialism accepting the rules of the game of bourgeois politics and the DP, instead of asserting the need to change the rules by building independent class politics.
Case Study: 2020 DSA-endorsed Candidate Victories
Let us now consider the main piece of evidence for the claim that the left had a good night on November 3: the success of democratic socialist-endorsed politicians and ballot initiatives. Do these successes heighten proletarian class consciousness and independence? Do they advance the socialist movement beyond electoralism? Or is their message that democratic socialists will merely be better managers of the capitalist state than bourgeois politicians? It is possible that the election of democratic socialists has increased working-class confidence. We offer no decisive opinions on that question, as it is too soon to tell. It is also possible that DBS are currently internally reassessing their strategy. Since the election, they have gone uncharacteristically quiet, at least in terms of publications in Jacobin and the like. Should DBS come out of the 2020 experience with a decisive “clean break” strategy that centers mass working-class action and a militant class analysis of the capitalist state, bourgeois politicians, and labor bureaucrats, that would be a welcome contribution to the socialist movement.
A recent interview with sociology professor Vivek Chibber, a thinker who DBS follows, at least partially hinted in that direction. Chibber dismisses the democratic socialists’ down-ballot wins, saying that they mire socialists in a swamp. He also rejects the possibility that social democracy can be achieved through national elections. Set aside the question of whether social democracy is even objectively possible in this, openly predatory no-growth stage of capitalism. Chibber’s reasoning, at least, indicates that he harbors far fewer illusions than his democratic socialist comrades. The working class, he says, is leaving the Democratic Party in droves and the party has now settled on a strategy of consolidating a suburban base supplemented with one in the Black and Latino “establishment.” An example of the latter is the Congressional Black Caucus, which he correctly calls reactionary. Instead of trying to win elections, socialists in the next period should focus on building a base in the working class, in workplaces, unions, and proletarian and racial minority neighborhoods.
While we oppose Chibber’s reformism, this is nevertheless a welcome critique of electoralism, specifically of the supposed benefits to the socialist movement of running in down ballot elections. Chibber, however, seems to be an outlier in this regard. If the analysis currently being offered by other democratic socialists in Jacobin and similar venues is any indication, the signals are that the DSA more generally remains mired in the very illusions Chibber is critiquing.
Analyses in Jacobin and elsewhere mainly focus on the fact that of 29 DSA-endorsed candidates and 11 ballot initiatives, 20 and 8, respectively, won on election night. This success they attribute to the appeal of the policies these candidates promised to enact, yet they offer no analysis of the class nature either of the state or of the Democratic Party. Some even fail to mention class altogether. For example, one national DSA leader writes, “DSA’s ideology, focused on a society that works for all of us instead of the wealthy few, is far more inspiring to young and working people than someone who is running for office just because they’re not Trump.” Another piece, in Jacobin, makes a gesture toward the movements taking to the streets recently, but argues that the role of mass action is to help elect progressive politicians. The article also fails to clarify the differences between consciously-led class struggle movements, spontaneous rebellions, and nonprofits, conflating all into the last. One egregious example, also from Jacobin, cited the election of 8 district attorneys – key figures in the repressive apparatus of the state – as evidence that the “left had a good night.” These pieces represent a large proportion of the output and a typical spectrum of the discourse among the post-election statements by democratic socialists. None say a word about how these elections will increase working-class confidence, militancy, and willingness or capacity to organize independently. None, to say the least, introduce “the class line of militancy” or utter a critical word about the “friends of labor” in the Democrats and the pro-Democratic Party labor bureaucracy.
It is important to make a distinction between DBS, on the one side, and the wider DSA, on the other. The former has been more reticent than the latter on the election analysis, and DBS-affiliated thinkers such as Chibber indicate an openness to thinking beyond electoralism. Yet the fact remains that articles featured in Jacobin account for a large part of the aforementioned superficial analysis, almost indistinguishable from what one reads in The Nation, Mother Jones, and other left-liberal venues. For tens of thousands of youth moving left, Jacobin represents “socialism.” These writers and this magazine have been riding a wave of radical movement since the days of Occupy, disseminating an accessible message about their version of socialism. But in so doing, their analysis fails to answer basic questions about the relationship between socialists, on the one side, and bourgeois elections, political parties, and the capitalist state, on the other. One would never get a sense, reading Jacobin, that socialists and communists have written libraries worth of literature on revolutionary parliamentarism. Again and again over the past four years, such writers have preferred to conflate quantity with quality: this many thousand members joined DSA after this or that election, this or that DSA-endorsed candidate won a primary or an election for DA. What these politicians do after their election to office is anyone’s guess: they never seem to say the phrases socialism or class, let alone class struggle, at least not loudly enough to encourage any worker to move into politics. The DBS counts among their members the most theoretically sophisticated DSA cadre – those members apparently most schooled in Marxism. Yet they have knowingly gone along with, and often abetted, the larger organization’s reformist and electoralist illusions. This is one of the truly puzzling aspects of recent socialist history in the United States. Will they now finally draw the inevitable conclusion that Chibber seems to be arriving at, that a clean break with the Democratic Party is the only path forward? The next period, in which among other things the new democratic socialist politicians will most likely be swallowed by the swamp, will offer revealing and necessary lessons for the socialist movement.
 See John Molyneux, Marxism and the Party (Haymarket Books, 2003), p. 36.
 James P. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism 1928 – 1938 (Pathfinder, 2002), p. 198.