A New Socialist Left Emerges

The Socialist left is using a slightly unexpected route to emerge from its decades-long post-Soviet seclusion from mainstream politics.  No, not the emergence of new trade union activity – not yet at least.  Nor a fresh connection to the environmental movement.  Nor even the spectacular appearance of the Occupy Wall Street movement or its international counterparts in the Middle East and Europe.  Instead, it has been the ballot box that has brought millions of people worldwide back into contact with left-wing parties previously viewed as remnants of the past.  While Malcolm X once asked the provocative question of the “ballot or the bullet,” socialists these days are attempting to figure out how to convert success at the polls into real transformative power in the society.

A European Outburst

Recent elections in France and Greece demonstrate that Socialist politics are alive as a means to register a protest vote against the Capitalist drive to austerity.  Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Left Front campaign registered a healthy 11% in the first-round of the Presidential elections after the far-left had previously been confined to single digits.  The Melenchon campaign raised issues and mobilized tens of thousands of people with an anti-austerity message that helped Socialist Party Candidate Francois Hollande defeat the incumbent Conservative Nicholas Sarkozy.  The anti-austerity mandate delivered by the French people may serve to handcuff the usual budget-cutting instincts of the French Socialist Party for a time while the Left Front serves as a continued outlet for anti-austerity frustrations.

Much brighter is the outcome in Greece where the previously microscopic SYRIZA party ascended to 17% of the national vote and anticipates scoring even higher in upcoming elections.  SYRIZA came out of a fracture in the Greek Communist Party (PKK), but had been limited by internal divisions prior to the current elections.  Up until now, Greece had been something of a puzzle since mass street demonstrations seemed to lead to few changes at the polls.  SYRIZA was able to capitalize on the public disgracing of the budget cutting Socialist Party (PASOK) and the sectarianism of the PKK.  Today, SYRIZA has moved from the political edges of society into the center of mass sentiment against the vicious budget cutting imposed by the European Union.  They are now close to possibly being at the lead of forming a new government in order to wage what its leader describes as a “war between people and capitalism.”  SYRIZA has pledged to make the unwinding of the European Union imposed austerity package the first act of the new government.

The Pink Tide

Latin American leftists have run far ahead of their European counterparts at the election booths.  In both Bolivia and Venezuela left parties have ascended to state power.  Here, there are  some cautionary tales about the hazards of attempting to manage the state as leftists inside of a capitalist system.  In Venezuela, the Presidential regime of Hugo Chavez was born out of sharp clashes between poor and working class communities and budget cutting neoliberal regimes.  In this way, Latin American Left, unlike their European counterparts, have already gone through the process of pushing up against the international forces of austerity.  Chavez navigated through this political waters skillfully – capitalizing at the polls by what is popularly referred to as “the process”.  In addition to electoral change on the national level this process has combined the formation of locally governing communal councils with a flourishing, if still small scale, worker-owned and run cooperative movement.

Yet, in both Bolivia and Venezuela, once popular left governments have been trapped within the paradigm of capitalist development.  The government of Evo Morales and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party have faced particular setbacks as they have engaged in a series of policies that allied them with multinational capitalist corporations and against local indigenous and environmental groups.  High profile struggles ensued as Morales tipped the scales toward development and away from the popular base that had ensured his ascendancy to office.  Chavez has faced a different series of setbacks as his attempts to create a modern socialist party in Venezuela, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), have, as yet, failed to galvanize popular support or produce a new leadership that moves beyond his own imposing shadow.

Managing the state has allowed the Pink Tide to mount serious challenges to what once seemed like the uncontrollable grasp of neo-liberalism. In some very important ways Chavez and Morales need to be credited with initiating a counter-process that mounted the kind of anti-austerity struggles that European left parties are just now discovering.  Yet, it has thus far failed to produce a significant shift towards radically transformative socialist politics for the 21st century.  Perhaps, as left movements also gain ground at the polls in Europe, a new internationalist consensus and urge to cooperate can be built to more fully shift the political terrain.  An added impulse from North America would certainly be a welcome accompaniment.

The American Handcuffs

In the United States Left electoralism is, in many ways, in the same stalled position that it had been prior to the economic crisis of 2008.  Highly restrictive ballot access laws have combined with a continued slavish illusion in the Democratic Party as a progressive force hamstring efforts at left regroupment at the polls.  Not surprisingly, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has mostly organized outside of electoral politics, rendering conversations about mounting a left challenge at the polls verboten in OWS circles.  So, while popular movements begin to awaken in the US, few signs are registered at the polls.

Despite the structural and ideological roadblocks, they are a few glimmers of hope.  The campaign for US Senate in Ohio waged by Socialist Party USA candidate and veteran labor activist Dan LaBotz scored some impressive vote totals in 2012.  More than 25,000 people cast their ballot for LaBotz, a total that easily eclipsed the national vote total for Socialist candidates in previous Presidential elections.  And in the 2012 Presidential elections, Socialist candidates such as the SP-USA’s Stewart Alexander will appear in the dozen or so states whose ballot access laws reasonably allow participation by small parties including potential swing states such as Ohio and Florida.

New Turn – New Possibilities

Even the most elementary notion of good sense dictates that Venezuela in the 1990s and Greece today are radically different contexts.  Equally so the prospects for Left electoralism in the United States and Europe where proportional representation and more open ballot access offer greater possibilities for maneuver.  However, a few things about Left electorialism do seem to be universal.  First, Left electoral forces need to build links into popular anti-austerity movements.  Second, anti-austerity movements need a Left electoral face at the polls – this will broaden the base of the movements by reaching out to regular poor and working class people who tend to pay attention to politics at election time and it will hit the pro-capitalist Democratic and Republican parties where it hurts most. Finally, although electing a Socialist to office will not mean that the revolutionary transformation of capitalism is complete, it will signal that our movement is building the kind of popular power necessary to make such a transformation.

The moment the first Socialist Senator walks into the halls of Congress, she will not do so alone.  The forces of the coming Democratic Revolution will have swept her into office and a victory at the polls will be only one part of making the political change our planet so desperately needs.  For now, though, American Socialists will have to be content to fight smaller underfunded electoral campaigns, to learn lessons from their Latin American and European counterparts and to, wherever possible, join them in a global solidarity effort to make a Democratic Revolution.

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. He can be reached at: whartonbilly@gmail.com. Read other articles by Billy, or visit Billy's website.