Let me say that I hope you, like me, share a vision of a better world. You’re looking around at the unleashed white supremacy, the rampant misogyny, the war machines churning death and destruction unchecked, and a growing culture of nihilistic hatred, and you know it doesn’t have to be this way. You believe in a world free of oppression based on sex, gender, sexual identity, or ability; free of racism and privilege; perhaps even one free of exploitation, with a radical redistribution of the world’s wealth and resources based on collective betterment and the preservation of the planet.
You’ve probably read your Marx and Engels, some Lenin and Luxemburg, and possibly even picked out your choice of diverging paths from the likes of Mao or Trotsky or Goldman. And like me, you’re looking at the tiny left, hearing the loud voices of our enemies, and are deeply worried about the future. You’re tired of watching the police exercise their complete impunity by murdering young people of color in real-time video, and anxious about the kind of society for which a handful of demagogues and too many of our neighbors are clamoring. Like me, your anxiety is through the roof.
It’s also possible that you’re looking at the phenomenal growth of the ideologically mercurial Democratic Socialists of America and the rise of a handful of charismatic young reform politicians running on Democratic Party tickets and wondering if maybe you should set aside what you’ve studied, and listen to the voices of those warning against purity and perfection in the face of unprecedented danger. Everybody’s talking about socialism now so maybe this defensive posture of incrementalism with a dose of electoral optimism holds a path forward to hope? I mean, something’s gotta give… maybe the voices urging us to get out the vote in the next, surely most important, election of our lives are right?
I’m here to tell you no, if you really consider yourself a socialist and want the lasting realization of that better world, then tell those voices to shut the fuck up.
If you grew up in the USA like I did, you grew up learning that we live in a representative democracy. You were taught that your vote was your sacred voice as a citizen, and your path to contributing to our nation’s bright and shiny future. You know that’s all a big fat lie, right? There is nothing representative nor democratic about the United States of America.
You won’t have to dive too deeply back into your stack of Marxist classics to be reminded that what we actually live in is a dictatorship: the dictatorship of the bourgeois class over the rest of us. Turns out that a dictatorship doesn’t require jackboots and concentration camps to be real, though my money certainly isn’t on writing off those particular trappings from some of our potential futures.
The truth is that the system we live in, administered by the capitalist class for its own benefit, is designed to preserve itself and prevent its displacement. There is zero chance, let me repeat, zero chance, that the capitalist class and its representatives will ever be voted out of power. There’s a vast racket in place to ensure this; one that is actually backed up by the threat of brute force. Polite people don’t really like to contemplate that, but it’s there, waiting. You can see this racket in place in trivial ways like when the DNC tries to isolate the Sanders wing of its own party, and you can see it in less trivial ways like when the CIA jumps in to overthrow elected politicians like Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende back in the 1970s, murdering thousands in the process.
Oh sure, sometimes the capitalist class gives up a little when the peasants are revolting and the torches and pitchforks get close, witness our fading social benefits won during the ever-more distant class struggles of the first half of the twentieth-century. But they know that as long as we play by the rules they make, they don’t have too much to worry about. Their game is rigged, and our voices are coopted.
There’s a deeper truth there you may have missed: when it comes to changing the world for the better, their game isn’t that important. It isn’t actually necessary. It isn’t actually the arena for social change. And it certainly isn’t anywhere on the path to socialism. What they call “politics” is not actually where politics are. Try and figure out what the Democratic Party actually stands for: compare notes on its printed platform and the actions of its elected office-holders when they have voting majorities and when they don’t. You’ll walk away hoping they stand for the same thing you do but in the end you’ll realize they don’t care about anything but getting elected. And money. They care about money a lot, just like the Republicans do. In case it’s not clear, a Democratic Party electoral victory is a victory for a wing of the capitalist class and the self-perpetuation of the system, not a victory for the rest of us. Your participation in their campaigns might make you feel like you’re doing something — anything — but what you’re actually doing is perpetuating the lie.
It doesn’t matter if the charming and enthusiastic young reform candidates throw around a few socialist buzzwords during their campaigns, and occasionally talk movingly about the dramatic inequalities and injustices in our society. It won’t be socialism that’s winning at that ballot box, it will be the Democratic Party. You might wanna dig a little deeper into what they mean by socialism anyway, cause if they’re just talking taxing rich people and adding snowplows and health insurance, you’re being sold a bill of goods. Go ahead, ask them about imperialism and war. I’ll just sit and wait.
The Democratic Party’s claim to be the natural home for “the Blacks and the Gays” is pretty much akin to an abusive spouse telling his wife how much she really needs him in between the beatings. For a handy microcosm, check out hipster New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio, his photogenic and earnest family of color, and his real-world willingness to let the NYPD run parallel systems for white and Black New Yorkers. Hint: the NYPD gets to murder and brutalize Black and brown New Yorkers impeded only by faint complaint while white New Yorkers get luxury housing and bike lanes. Get out of that abusive relationship, and get out of it right now.
That political party you’re voting for is not just people metaphorically representing what you hope are progressive ideas, they are a bunch of people who actually want to administer the apparatus of the capitalist state. That means the people who make it into government become the little Eichmanns who press the buttons behind all the machineries of war, repression, mass incarceration, border exclusion, and police militarization: all the lying bureaucracies of your choice. What kind of socialist wants to be responsible for any of THAT?
The 2016 elections were a national spectacle that went on for more than two years of insufferable media coverage bringing extraordinary displays of unrestrained assholism from the candidates of all involved parties straight into our living rooms and smart phones. And yet, millions and millions of Americans didn’t bother to vote. Before you suck your teeth at your fellow citizens failing to fulfill their duties, consider for a moment that those millions were the smart ones and those of you who were terrified into pulling the levers for your choice of despicable human beings vying for a seat in one of several slave-built whitewashed DC mansions, were the victims of a horrifying mass blackmail operation designed to rob you of your humanity and independent will.
Those millions of non-voters have seen the game and refused to play. Certainly political apathy is a factor among that massive plurality; but when offered a choice from among differently colored casks of putrid sewage for your evening beverage, I’m not sure apathy isn’t called for.
I don’t know if she considered herself any kind of Marxist, but the late queer poet and theorist Audre Lorde famously said, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”She came to this realization from a deep place of exclusion: as a woman of color and a queer feminist she saw how fundamentally screwed up the world was, and how revolutionary any approach to fixing it needed to be. If you check that stack of books you’ll see that Lenin was trying to tell you something pretty similar when he described the capitalist state and how revolutionaries must win socialism. And that vision of a completely new world, egalitarian and socialist, remains our only real hope for surviving the shithole that capitalist-run human society is digging for itself.
Time is a wasting. In the early twentieth-century there were waves of electoral success for various open and explicitly socialist movements right here in the United States. They led nowhere. Today there are a tiny handful of openly socialist elected politicians, most of whom realized that they wouldn’t actually even get elected if they ran on an openly socialist ticket. I don’t know about you, but watching parts of the country consumed by fires as others submerge under polluted waters I’m pretty sure we don’t have time to wait for thousands more sewer socialists to be elected to rediscover that such politicians only reach an accommodation with capitalism not a confrontation with it. That genuine change that Audre Lorde hoped for demands our attention.
Voting for Democrats — with their proven record of subjugating social movements for their electoral advantage — or joining an organization like DSA that fails to understand the fundamental nature of the capitalist state and its apparatuses, these don’t actually get us closer to socialism. I’d ask every activist who self identifies as a socialist and wants to go out campaigning for candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon how they actually expect that story to end. When they convince a skeptic into voting for an over-promising sweet-talking politician who turns out to be the scorpion to the voters’ frog, who benefits from that predictable reveal? Not the reputation of socialism. Socialism will not arrive if we forget that it exists only as a fundamental challenge to existing class society. Might want to go back to that stack of books on that one.
Well, goddamn it, we have to do something, you say. And indeed we do.
While I’m not about to pretend I have easy answers, I’m also not trying to be a downer; actually quite the contrary. How about we actually advocate for socialist revolution? Once upon a time the red flag inspired millions of strangers to see each other as comrades in the struggle, daring to fight together for that better world. We should reclaim that spirit of solidarity, empathy, sister- and brotherhood, militantly standing up for each other as oppressed and exploited people collectively and openly fighting for our own free future.
That stuff in the books hasn’t been disproved, we shouldn’t be doubting ourselves. We do need better organizations than we have, this is undeniable and it’s a messy process. We need to work on making sure our vision of socialism this time round is inclusive and intersectional and committed to forms and processes of real mass democracy, the likes of which we can barely imagine today. And we need to be upfront about opposing the exploits of the imperialist empire in whose belly we live.
But we don’t need the Democrats. And we don’t need to waste our time on their pointless and fake elections. Maybe down the road when we are strong we can run our own anti-candidates to expose the electoral charade from within. But right now we should join the nonvoters and do everything in our power to explain how utterly crucial it is for the people ourselves to take direct action to preserve our future from capitalist barbarism.
That corrupt and pointless electoral game of capitalist America belongs in the trash. We should not let our enemies, our masters, tell us what tools are appropriate for extracting ourselves from the disaster they have foisted upon us.
There’s a lot of work to be done: We must reclaim the love, and the rage, that once made socialism a spectre of fear for the capitalists and a ray of hope for the world’s peoples. The stakes are high. This isn’t about politicians’ empty promises and platforms, it’s about taking a stand and saving our humanity from the genocidal forces being stoked daily. We must reclaim the will — and the power of our class — to win not elections, but a free and socialist world. It’s past time. Free your mind from the Democrats, your ass will follow.
Ian Scott Horst is a contract worker in New York City. He is a lifelong communist and, while currently unaffiliated, a veteran of many groups including the Revolutionary Socialist League, Lavender Left, Queer Pagans, Occupy Sunset Park, and the Kasama Project. He is completing a book-length manuscript on the Ethiopian revolution of the 1970s. He won’t be voting in the midterms. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org