When We Fight, We Win!: For an agitational socialist electoral strategy

Date: 2022-05-11T04:01:20+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Jack L draws on recent campaigns in New York City to make the case for an agitational electoral strategy.

NYC-DSA currently finds itself engaged in a number of uphill battles. We are running a series of competitive primary races for New York State legislative office, and are fighting to gain traction in Albany on a number of legislative reforms. We are also coming out of a loss: that is, New York’s newly passed budget, which NYC-DSA leadership rightly asserts has “fail[ed] working people, jeopardize[d] public safety, fail[ed] to take action on climate, and stall[ed] job growth.” 

The failure to get the funding and legislative priorities we had wanted can be attributed to many things. NYC-DSA invested fewer resources than in last year’s “Tax the Rich” priority campaign. The political moment is also different: Kathy Hochul has replaced Andrew Cuomo as governor, and a tough-on-crime political bloc is ascendant. Unless we’d have preferred to shift our resources away from the work NYC-DSA we’re currently doing, these are not things we have much control over. However, there is one thing we do have control over, regardless of capacity or external conditions: our voices; what stories we’re telling, and the audience we’re speaking to.

In my estimation, NYC-DSA’s endorsed electeds (our “Socialists in Office”), alongside chapter leadership, failed to tell the public the right story about this political battle. In the face of private pressure from Democratic legislators (threats of retaliation on the one hand, quid pro quos on the other), NYC-DSA failed to publicly expose the ways that New York’s establishment Democrats prevent the working class from expressing their democratic will, from seeing their priorities implemented by the state. Not only did we fail to use this private pressure to our public advantage: we caved to it. In part because of pressure from the Democratic Party establishment, not all of NYC-DSA’s electeds voted no on the bill that would out more than a billion dollars to the billionaire owner of the Buffalo Bills for a new football stadium. For context, this is a project that the chair of the senate’s finance committee called “a terrible way to use the taxpayers’ money,” and a move that the Seneca Nation has suggested is an attempt by Kathy Hochul to “cripple” their investment in the gaming industry in favor of their competitor: Buffalo Bills contractor Delaware North, a company that just so happens to employ Hochul’s husband.

NYC-DSA’s failure to effectively agitate around the 2022 budget is not just a failure on principled grounds: it is a failure of effective socialist practice. This article is an attempt to explain why that is the case.

But, before we get to the bulk of the argument, this contradiction observed by an insightful comrade makes my point succinctly: while socialists consider moving away from overtly socialist messaging to win over a broader base, progressives and establishment Democrats alike are adopting many of the demands initially put forward by socialists.


What are the goals for socialists when we run a campaign? There are at least three:

  1. Win the race or the reform
  2. Raise socialist consciousness
  3. Build our organization and the organized working class

Before we continue on, it is important to note that socialists have disagreed on how to frame these political “goals” for more than a century: with the reformists (exemplified by Eduard Bernstein) on one side, and the orthodox Marxists (exemplified by Marx and Engels on the other). As outlined by Paul D’Amato

reformism…argues that modern representative government affords the working class the opportunity to achieve socialism by electing a socialist majority into office. This view emphasizes the peaceful, gradual transition to socialism, and sees campaigns around elections and the work of socialist elected officials as the most important aspect of socialists’ activity. The other trend, first outlined by Marx and Engels…argues for a revolutionary overthrow of the state, based upon the mass struggle of the working class, and its replacement by new organs of workers’ power.

In other words, there are two differing perspectives on electoral “wins.” Bernsteinian reformists view electoral victory as the primary strategic objective, whereas orthodox Marxists view independent working-class political power as the primary strategic objective. This article approaches strategic questions from the orthodox Marxist position on reforms: that winning reforms is an objective subordinate to the strategy of using the electoral arena as a platform for agitation and organization. From this standpoint, reforms are important. But they are important as measures of the growth of working-class consciousness and organization, and as signposts on the path towards revolutionary working-class democracy. 

The fact that winning is not the primary object of socialist electoral strategy is confusing and counterintuitive, especially to those comrades who are deeply invested in the idea of winning reforms and state power through the ballot. However, we must be clear in how we frame the “goal” of winning reforms: is it the prime goal, per the reformist strategy, or is it subordinate to the goal of revolutionary working-class organization, per the orthodox Marxist strategy? If we aren’t careful in examining this question, we won’t be able to distinguish between the ”wins” that move us towards working-class organization and the “wins” that unwittingly advance the strategic efforts of our class enemies (by disarming ourselves through the tempering of our agitation).

Now, back to the three “goals” of a campaign: “winning” in the narrow sense, raising socialist consciousness, and building working-class organization. Ideally, a campaign would accomplish all three goals. And yet, there are some on the left who seem to hold these ideas in tension. The question then becomes this: when we sacrifice raising consciousness by masking our socialist politics and holding our agitational fire, do we improve our odds of winning a race or a reform? When we promote agitation, raising consciousness and building working-class organization, do we sacrifice our ability to win races or reforms? 

We can only answer these questions and assess the utility of a tactic or strategic orientation by looking at concrete conditions, historic and present. To that end, it is useful to distinguish between two different contexts: first, when there is a momentary convergence on a particular demand between the forces of socialism and a bloc of the ruling class (in this country, Democrats or a portion of Democrats are more likely to be temporarily aligned with socialists); and second, when socialist demands diverge from the demands of the ruling class writ large (Democrats and Republicans). For a moment, let’s accept the premise (rejected by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, as outlined in a recent article of mine) that winning reforms is the primary goal of socialists. In the first context, when there is alignment between the socialists and a bloc of Democrats, agitating against Democrats may not help win the reform. 

For example, a sizeable number of Democrats (but not all!) opposed Governor Hochul’s rollback of bail reform and her handouts to the billionaire oil baron owner of the Buffalo Bills. In this case, socialists joined with Democrats in opposition to these policies (although the case should loudly be made that handouts to billionaires are a bipartisan consensus in this country). However, the rest of the budget fight falls squarely into the second context: where the Democratic and Republican parties writ large oppose our demands (for example, funding for undocumented workers or for households facing eviction). Beyond that, this process, like many in the halls of power, is incredibly undemocratic and marked by the use of threats of retaliation and quid pro quos. In this case, laying off on our agitation against the Democratic Party’s dirty dealings in favor of any sort of “light touch” attempt to organize them inside the halls of power is an ineffective approach at winning reforms. This is because we can’t beat the party machinery at their own game: Democrats are incredibly well organized by the party machinery, where outliers are punished by withholding committee appointments, campaign funds and by running opposing candidates. Perhaps more fundamentally, this is ineffective because, at the end of the day, socialist demands have no meaningful bloc of support within the ruling class. 

Of course, real situations are more complex than just described. Most of our fights include a bourgeois bloc in support and in opposition, and most fights use a mix of agitation, mass mobilization, and advocacy in the halls of power. However, the reason that this model is useful is that it shows us that, even if you accept that winning reforms is the central task of socialists (something I categorically reject, alongside Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Liebknecht, Luxemburg, and on and on), principled agitation is almost always a useful tool in achieving these legislative or electoral victories. After all, how often is it that our demands have the support of a meaningful bloc from the Democratic Party?

The positive case for principled agitation as a key component in socialist electoral strategy is substantial:

  1. Agitation helps build consciousness and solidarity. This is a central goal for socialists: bringing the revolutionary message to the working masses and giving them the tools to analyze the moment and develop a plan to fight together for their interests. This is one of the primary long-term goals of socialists, for it is a key basis of our strength (the other key being our organization, our concrete forces and resources). More on this central (and under-appreciated!) point later.
  2. Agitation helps with our organizing. Not only does exposing the injustices of our system win the working class to our side, but our work also needs a guiding political mission for it not to fall into the economist trap of dissolution after accomplishing the stated “goal” of winning a reform (both in electoral and base-building work).
  3. Agitation helps us win. As described above, agitation may not help us win in all situations. But agitation does increase our outside strength (see below). And, given that the bourgeois state stands in fundamental class opposition to our working-class movement, this outside strength is a major key to the success of our campaigns.

In many ways, agitation is the language of socialism. The most successful socialist orators in history, from Eugene Debs to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Lucy Parsons, combined fiery indictments of ruling class corruption and exploitation with inspiring calls for a working-class democracy that serves the interests of the many, not the few. While this rhetoric is effective at mobilizing working people to fight for political demands, this activity all runs counter to the interests of the ruling class, who are the ones who actually have the power to grant these demands. This is the root of the contradiction highlighted earlier – it is far easier to speak as a socialist than it is to act on those politics every day, in every situation (especially those situations when the pressure to compromise is high). This is a key difference between socialists and progressives – progressives utilize socialistic rhetoric to build a constituency and the horse-trading tactics of bourgeois politics to maintain their power. Fundamentally, socialist politics differs from liberal bourgeois politics in its focus on organizing and educating the working class so that we can fight, not just for any one demand, but for a revolutionary worker’s democracy. While it may seem convenient, necessary even, to play the bourgeois political game in order to win reforms, there are no shortcuts on the path towards a politically conscious mass movement capable of fighting for and winning a working-class democracy.

A concrete example of these ideas is 2019’s campaign for Universal Rent Control in New York State. At the time, NYC-DSA’s position was actually much weaker internally: not only did we only have one DSA member in office (State Senator Julia Salazar), but the real estate industry ruled Albany with an iron fist (demonstrated by the numerous rollbacks in rental protections since the passage of rent stabilization in the 1970s). Because of our weak internal position, our strategy relied on agitation, organization, and mass mobilization. For more than a year we knocked doors and made calls to our neighbors, organizing them to stand in support of our fight for universal rent control: a demand that didn’t tinker at the margins, that captured public attention in its call for re-imagining a society that put people over profit and renters over wealthy landlords. We found out just how much money state legislators took from the real estate industry and we propagandized around this relentlessly, on social media and in the streets. Finally, we rallied our forces to go to Albany, not to ask for Universal Rent Control, but to demand that shit! While we didn’t win universal rent control, we did win the first expansion to rental protections in half a century. And we did this with only one DSA state elected, relying on our ability to organize a movement and agitate around the bourgeois state’s buddy-buddy relationship to the real estate industry: if that doesn’t show you that agitational people power is the most important tool socialists have got, I don’t know what will!

Of course, there are still some among us who feel trepidation around agitational rhetoric. Because of our relative weakness in the halls of power, they want us to tread lightly. While the above example highlights that agitation is actually a strength (especially in the context of relative weakness), these concerns are certainly valid, and deserving of consideration. In this section, I will address some of these concerns, using some choice quotes from socialists in the orthodox Marxist tradition to outline why these concerns are misguided. Here, I am indebted heavily to August Nimtz’s excellent book The Ballot, the Streets—or Both, and his critical reappraisal of traditional Marxist political strategy around the turn of the 19th century, featuring the German SPD and their correspondence with Engels as well as Lenin’s early political interventions in Russia’s socialist movement. I also pull on excerpts taken from another excellent work: Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered.

The second half of this concern is almost inarguably correct: socialists are more powerful when there are more of us. However, this concern raises two questions:

1) Is it true that agitation doesn’t increase our power?

2) When we are talking about increasing our numbers, what numbers are we talking about?

The first question can only be answered after defining what we mean when we speak of “power.” In an orthodox Marxist sense, socialist “power” is well defined by Lenin, in a summary of an argument by Engels: 

All that the socialists had to understand was which social force, owing to its position in contemporary society, has a deep interest in the realisation of socialism – and then communicate to that force an awareness of its interests and historical task. The proletariat is such a social force …. The political movement of the worker class inevitably leads the workers to the awareness that there is no escape outside of socialism. On the other hand, socialism only becomes a force when it becomes the aim of the political struggle of the worker class.

This is a summary of the merger formula: the idea that, in order to become a political force capable of overthrowing capitalism and instituting working-class democracy, the movement of socialists must merge with the movement of workers. In Engels’ and Lenin’s conception of the merger formula, a key role of socialists is to bring to the workers an “awareness of [their] interests and historical task.” To do this, socialists must prioritize speaking to the masses about the injustices of the capitalist system and the role of the working class in transforming this unjust system. In other words, for socialists to increase their power, they must prioritize agitation that brings political consciousness and organization to the masses.

I will use Nimtz’s analysis of Engel’s correspondence with German SPD political leader August Bebel to answer the second question: what do we mean when we speak of increasing our “numbers?” Bolded language is my own in this quote from The Ballot, the Streets—or Both

If there is any doubt about how Engels viewed elections, read his comment to Bebel on the eve of the 1890 Reichstag elections in which the SPD was expected to make (and did make) significant gains: “[M]y only fear is that we shall obtain too many seats. Every other party in the Reichstag can have as many jackasses and allow them to perpetrate as many blunders as it can afford to pay for, and nobody gives a damn, whereas we, if we are not to be held cheap, must have nothing but heroes and men of genius.” Quality and not quantity was the goal— not the demand of a bourgeois politician. It should be noted that nowhere does Engels say anything about winning a majority of the electorate through elections. The reason, as already suggested, is that he didn’t expect the ruling class to allow the electoral process to go that far. Thus what was crucial for success was winning not just a simple majority in elections but rather effective supporters— that is, those who were willing to vote with their feet to resist the regime and especially those who knew how to use arms.

From this analysis, two things are clear. The first is that, for socialists in office, quality is much more important than quantity. This is because, as Engels observes (and as the history of coups in social democratic countries around the world shows us), the ruling class will not passively allow the victory of a truly socialist majority in the electoral process. The second is that, because winning a majority through the bourgeois electoral process is an almost certain impossibility, in terms of numbers, it is really the number of “effective supporters,” or active and militant members of the worker’s movement, that really matters.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to win more races, elect more socialists to office, or even that we shouldn’t attempt to win over other elected officials to our politics. The point is, more important than all these things, that a primary aim of socialists in office is to expand the ranks of our socialist movement (through the merger of socialism and the worker’s movement), and that agitation is a key component in that process.

We should make them care! Socialists should aim to expose the injustices of our governing institutions. Lenin’s advice upon the founding of the party newspaper Iskra (taken from Nimtz’s The Ballot, the Streets—or Both) makes the case well:

[W]e wish particularly to emphasise our opposition to the view that a workers’ newspaper should devote its pages exclusively to matters that immediately and directly concern the spontaneous working- class movement, and leave everything pertaining to the theory of socialism, science, politics, questions of Party organisation, etc., to a periodical for the intelligentsia. On the contrary, it is necessary to combine all the concrete facts and manifestations of the working- class movement with the indicated questions; the light of theory must be cast upon every separate fact; propaganda on questions of politics and Party organisation must be carried on among the broad masses of the working class; and these questions must be dealt with in the work of agitation.

Nimtz’s assessment of Lenin’s position pre-1905 is that “[n]othing could be ‘more dangerous and more criminal than the demagogic speculation on the underdevelopment of the workers’ and the assumption that they couldn’t grasp theory.” While DSA doesn’t have a worker’s newspaper (yet!), and while this argument may focus on theory as being outside the direct concern of the immediate working-class experience, it seems reasonable to say that Lenin’s call for agitation on a wide range of questions applies in the context of the internal political dynamics within the halls of power.

There is also a less theoretical response to this concern: the idea that people “don’t care” about blackmail, quid pro quos, and the dirty dealings that regularly occur in the halls of power is simply not true! Trump rode to power on a constituency united in their anger with ruling elites. And, although they commonly conceal the most heinous crimes and abuses of the state (hence the need for an independent socialist press!), there’s not much the media loves more than a political scandal, almost certainly because of the scandal’s ability to attract the public’s attention.

While this idea of electeds as restrained political actors may seem sensible in the context of bourgeois realpolitik, it is actually counterproductive when viewed in the context of the central strategic aim of merging socialism with the worker’s movement, and the central role played by agitation in achieving that aim.

Counter to this idea, because agitation is key to the merger formula, Lenin views the role of elected officials as “tribunes of the people.” In Lenin’s 1901 pamphlet “What Is To Be Done,” he describes tribunes as:

 …able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects…to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation…to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.

For Lenin:

[t]he principal thing, of course, is propaganda and agitation among all strata of the people…we are obliged for that reason to expound and emphasise general democratic tasks before the whole people, without for a moment concealing our socialist convictions. He is no Social-Democrat who forgets in practice his obligation to be ahead of all in raising, accentuating, and solving every general democratic question. (Bolded text is my own emphasis.)

It is clear that Lenin viewed thorough, wide-ranging, principled agitation as a primary responsibility for all socialists. This is especially true for elected officials, who, in the absence of a platform for widespread public agitation, have an outsized platform to agitate.

Again, we must define our terms. What is “political capital?” If we are to understand it as the capacity for an elected official to push for this or that priority, then what is the source of this political capital? How is it lost, and how is it gained? One interpretation of this concept would suggest that political capital comes from proximity to the ruling class administrators of the state: in New York, the Democratic Party establishment. A strategy following from this is that, in order to gain political capital, an elected must win the favor of the ruling class by doing favors in support of their interests; and, to avoid losing political capital, an elected must avoid angering these ruling class leaders.

German SPD political leader Wilhelm Liebknecht rejects this position in his excellent pamphlet “No Compromise – No Political Trading,” writing: 

…we should not sound the alarm and be misled by fear into taking steps that do not accord with the principles, the nature and the honor of our party. One does not disarm an enemy through timidity and gentleness; one simply emboldens him…No, Social Democracy must remain for itself, must seek for and generate its power within itself. Every power outside of ourselves on which we seek to lean is for us only weakness. In the consciousness of our strength, in our faith in the world-conquering mission of socialism lies the secret of our extraordinary, almost miraculous success. 

Liebknecht sees the “political capital” of socialists as coming from the organized merger of the socialist and workers’ movements along an agitational Marxist line (a position shared by Marx, Engels, and Lenin). This conception of socialist political power (e.g., coming from agitation and militant working-class organization) is also concretely demonstrated through the aforementioned example of the 2019 campaign for Universal Rent Control. 

Ultimately, socialists in the United States are fated to hold an electoral minority in the short term. In this context, to gain “political capital” is to gain more fighting forces from among the ranks of the working class. To do that, all socialists, rank-and-file members and elected representatives alike, must join in the class struggle as tribunes capable of agitating, educating, and organizing around every manifestation of “tyranny and oppression,” producing a “single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation” in counterposition to our “democratic demands…and the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”


Concretely, where does this analysis lead us? I believe this leads socialists away from an electoral strategy predicated on holding our punches, playing nice, and tailing radical movement demands in the name of putting “practical reforms” before class-independent working-class organization imbued with revolutionary consciousness; and towards a more thoroughly agitational political strategy, using every opportunity to ruthlessly propagandize against our class enemies and call on the masses to join our movement for working-class democracy. The former strategy of reformism has been tried by socialists around the world, and it has failed. Why continue to tread down the path roundly criticized since the debates between Bernstein and his more successful, more revolutionary comrades (Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Liebknecht, Luxemburg, and on and on)?

Despite all this, there may be those who still have reservations about this strategy. This is understandable: the stakes are high, after all. To those comrades, I would say this: if you still remain unpersuaded by the piles of theoretical and historical evidence, at the very least let us put our differing strategies to the test and let contemporary empirical evidence be our guide! Let us run a more agitational race, with a candidate who does not hold back in their criticism of the oppressive and exploitative capitalist regime! Let us run a race focused on organization, using ballot registration drives to build an even larger base of militant workers and voters! Let us run in even more local races that take less of our capacity, allowing us to experiment with our strategic and tactical decisions even more! Let us try all these things with an eye towards an empirical assessment: can we measurably determine which is more effective at accomplishing our goals, between the more reformist and the more agitational strategies? I believe that we can make this determination, I believe that we must, and I believe that we cannot be afraid to try for fear of failure (although the evidence of agitation failing socialists is slim). After all, the project of organizing the working class to take political power for socialism is a long term one, and at the end of the day, to invoke our comrade Liebknecht, “[i]n the consciousness of our strength, in our faith in the world-conquering mission of socialism lies the secret of our extraordinary, almost miraculous success.”

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