Bryan Koulouris and Calvin Priest, Socialist Alternative (ISA in the United States)
For the fourth time, Socialist Alternative leader and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant has won an election, this time while facing off against a racist, right-wing recall backed by big business. This victory is a vindication for a class-struggle approach to elected office, an example of successful independent working-class politics, and it is full of lessons for working people and the socialist left.
This was the most difficult election we’ve faced since Kshama came to office in 2013. Seattle had never seen a December election, a timing consciously engineered by the recall to drive down voter turnout among workers, renters, young people, and people of color. A corporate PAC with the Orwellian name “A Better Seattle” poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into constantly bombarding voters with lies and deceit in TV, web, and mail ads. Meanwhile, the Kshama Solidarity campaign was denied ads by Google, YouTube, and Hulu.
The corporate PAC weren’t the only ones spreading dishonest information about Kshama and the right-wing recall. Due to our ability to win victories that infuriate the ruling class and political establishment, the corporate media (especially the widely-read Seattle Times) has carried out a constant drumbeat of misleading, underhanded attacks against Kshama and our movement over the past eight years. The State Supreme Court, with no hearing on the truth of the charges, ruled in favor of the right-wing recall, resulting in outright lies appearing on the ballot as the last thing anyone saw before voting.
The courts inexplicably stalled their judgment for three months, allowing the right-wing recall to carry out voter suppression with an unprecedented winter holiday election, which are typically far lower turnout than general elections. The very same court threw out a recall effort against Amazon’s Mayor of Seattle, Jenny Durkan less than six months prior, after she illegally ordered the tear gassing of peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters, resulting in over 18,000 complaints. As the severe attacks on abortion rights and the racist justice system also clearly show, the capitalist courts are not on the side of working people and the oppressed.
In Kshama’s eight years in office, her leadership and Socialist Alternative’s work in Seattle has been a beacon for how Marxists can lead working people and the oppressed to crucial victories. From making Seattle the first major city to win a $15 an hour minimum wage in 2014 to the successful $2 billion Amazon Tax in 2020 and landmark renters’ rights victories over many years, our Marxist council office and working class movements in Seattle have impacted the lives of not only Seattle residents but millions of workers nationally. Now, we have a strong mandate to boldly continue our struggle against the right wing and the ruling class.
Deep polarization and next steps
Like in many major cities, the rents in Seattle are skyrocketing. We collected over 15,000 signatures for rent control during this campaign, at the same time as Kshama’s office and Socialist Alternative helped renters get organized to successfully fight off rent increases in specific buildings. We also won historic renters rights this year that have set a national precedent. We’re going to step up this fight for quality, affordable housing in Seattle, and we hope this desperately-needed movement can spread across the country, just as our victory for the $15 an hour minimum wage did in 2015. As always, we will face a determined opposition from corporate landlords, the Democratic establishment, pro-capitalist courts, right-wing populists, and possibly even state repression – but our victories are a testament to how a class-struggle approach can overcome these obstacles.
Big business failed to unseat our socialist City Council office despite pulling out all the stops in 2019 with Amazon alone spending over $3 million. This time, they teamed up with a right-wing backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, and they still failed to defeat Kshama and our movement. They won’t stop there. Increasing lies, lawsuits, and even state repression could follow against Socialist Alternative. We saw a heightened polarization in this election with unhinged right-wingers harassing our volunteers with ferocity and threats. Former cop union president Ron Smith threatened to “cuff the councilmember” while Seattle cops were campaigning for the recall.
For the first time in more than 30 years, an open Republican won elected office in Seattle as City Attorney last month. This will embolden the right wing further. As the Biden administration fails to deliver real gains for working people, the space could grow for right-wing populism. Our victory shows how to effectively fight against this phenomenon.
Unfortunately, many left candidates and activists try to counter the right-wing corporate politicians by papering over differences with the Democratic establishment. This only leaves more of a vacuum for the right wing to pose as the “anti-establishment” alternative to business as usual politics, as Trump and others have done nationally. Some other activists lean on “woke” soundbites without offering concrete demands that can improve the lives of working class people. Neither of these approaches are effective.
This last year, as our socialist campaign fought for popular demands like rent control, renters rights, and to expand the Amazon Tax for urgently needed affordable housing, not a single “woke” progressive Democratic candidate campaigned on these issues – instead, they went on the defensive in the face of right-wing attacks. As a result, not only did the Democratic candidates lose, some like Lorena Gonzalez were defeated by blowout margins.
Socialists can counter the right by unapologetically fighting against all forms of oppression and connecting this to fighting demands that benefit working people. We need to be willing to expose those corporate and “progressive” leaders who offer no solutions for the working class while we organize for clear policies like rent control, increased wages, taxing the rich, and a socialist green new deal jobs program.
Politics of the ground game
The Seattle media and much of the left often focus on Socialist Alternative’s incredible “ground game” when explaining Kshama’s victories. While we’re extremely proud of our unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort and million-dollar fundraising, all of this directly flows from our dynamic revolutionary socialist politics.
It takes an active mass movement to defeat the capitalists. Passive support for socialist ideas or specific working-class policies are not enough to win victories that can positively affect our lives and deliver a blow to the bank accounts of the billionaires. Instead, we need to fight unambiguously for the needs of working people, young people, and the oppressed for them to feel invested in going all out to win. This is partly expressed in the fighting demands of a campaign, such as our struggle for rent control, that we went on the offensive to fight for despite the fact that the solidarity campaign was in essence a defense campaign. We also went on the offensive against this right-wing attack to emphasize how crucial it was for working people that we maintained the only voice in city hall willing to fight for us.
Over 1,500 people in District 3 volunteered in some way, many of them filling out “pledge cards” to discuss the election and turn out the votes of at least three friends, family members, or co-workers. On top of this, we didn’t just focus on likely voters, and turnout among 18-25 year olds was hundreds of votes bigger in our special election than in the November general election! This was made possible with over 1,700 new voter registrations and an orientation towards students who don’t normally vote in local elections. Voter registrations are especially crucial for renters, often forced to move by skyrocketing housing costs, because Seattle has a mail-in ballot system.
In contrast to left electoral campaigns that promise victories based on voting, we told every supporter that we needed them to do more than just vote. We asked every supporter we met doorknocking and tabling at least three times if they would donate to the campaign, stressing the spending of right-wingers and corporate executives. We broke all Seattle records, receiving over 5,000 donors from within the district.
While many progressive campaigns focus on “likely” voters, we pushed up turnout in public housing and marginalized communities. In one heavily East African building, turnout was nearly ten times what it was in the general election! We had campaign materials in eight languages and conducted specialized outreach to many communities who often speak English as a second language. On top of this, we had grassroots ballot printing stations where workers and young people could vote on the spot.
All of these organizational achievements were necessary to win, and they all flow from the working-class orientation of genuine Marxism. Many activists were also impressed by the discipline of our campaign which also flows from our revolutionary politics; we know it will take a tight-knit organization to effectively defeat all the forces that capitalism throws at us. This was a campaign of struggle, aiming to turn passive support into an active fight against the large landlords, big developers, and corporate executives who dominate the political establishment. Our political message was a decisive feature in how we won.
Naming the class enemies
Just as Kshama’s office has done for more than eight years, we were willing to name and shame the right-wing recall’s backers. While many progressive and even socialist campaigns often avoid polarizing the discussion against our class enemies and movement misleaders, we were proud of the adversaries we made.
Early on, we told the truth about the recall being a right-wing campaign even though this made some people angry. Two of the recall’s charges were an attack on the Black Lives Matter movement and the 20 million people at protests demanding justice for George Floyd. The other was about using our socialist council office to build the successful Tax Amazon movement. All too often, progressives become defensive when attacked by the political establishment. We did the opposite and told people that Kshama and our movement had nothing to hide, no regrets, and that these charges were right-wing. We pointed out the backing of big business for the recall, and their motivation to overturn our 2019 reelection. We also pointed out that the courts are not on the side of working people and the undemocratic nature of the recall process.
While the right-wing charges of the recall campaign were clear throughout, we also used the “right-wing recall” slogan based on our political prediction of how the campaign would unfold. While the recall initially was returning donations from notorious right-wing donors like billionaire ICE landlord and Trump supporter Martin Selig, we knew they would more and more have to lean on right-wing support given their shallow base in Seattle. After months of us saying the recall was right-wing, their campaign manager, who couldn’t handle tough questions from progressive reporters, began to appear on right-wing talk radio for softball interviews on a weekly basis. The right-wing donors (130+ Trump donors and 500+ Republican contributors) started piling in, and they even accepted another donation from Selig himself! Using the “right-wing recall” slogan early on positioned our campaign to scandalize the recall and make it toxic for a layer of voters in the “middle ground.”
We also predicted that the recall campaign would resort to voter suppression as their only potential path to victory. With the “put up or shut up” tactic, we collected over 3,000 signatures for the recall to be put on the ballot with Kshama prominently signing the petition herself! We did this to expose the right-wing recall campaign for consciously avoiding putting the question on the November 2nd ballot when turnout would be highest as Seattleites voted on Mayor and many other city and county positions. This tactic helped show without a doubt that the recall was attempting voter suppression and gave further credence to our slogan calling the recall campaign right-wing despite the objections of many rich liberals.
While forced to wage a struggle against the recall, we also continued to focus on building movements for workers and renters, even when this cut across our “ground game.” Kshama’s office and Socialist Alternative mobilized for historic renters rights legislation in 2021 and led a fight against rent increases at Rainier Court (a set of apartment buildings outside of Kshama’s district!). On top of this, we gathered over 15,000 signatures for rent control and built a rally of hundreds on a rainy day at the height of our fight against the recall. The class struggle doesn’t stop, and we don’t take breaks for electoral considerations; we also know that a confident mood of increased movements can help the electoral prospects for socialists.
Perhaps most important for the class struggle, and also most controversial, was Kshama and Socialist Alternative’s role in the rank-and-file led Washington State Carpenters strike. This was a strike that the union’s leaders never wanted, taking place after workers rejected four tentative agreements that were negotiated by union staffers. The union’s leaders carried out ineffective pickets that didn’t shut down a single job site. After a few days of this, workers started organizing their own militant pickets, which the rank-and-file Peter J. McGuire group helped to lead. Kshama’s office played a significant role in this strike, much to the annoyance of these labor leaders. While the strike’s outcome wasn’t a decisive victory, it helped pave the way for future looming labor battles, and Kshama is introducing legislation to deal with one of the workers’ demands – for bosses to pay for expensive Seattle parking, which eats up a significant portion of workers’ daily wages.
Socialists and unions
We were proud to get over 20 union local endorsements for the Kshama Solidarity Campaign, and this effort was driven forward by 600 endorsements by rank-and-file workers in Seattle’s labor movement. While there are some class struggle union leaders in Seattle, many others only reluctantly supported our campaign due to pressure from below. Sometimes even after unions endorsed our fight against the recall, it would take a proposal from rank-and-file activists (often Socialist Alternative members or sympathizers) to get the unions to invest any resources in the struggle.
This is a microcosm of where the labor movement unfortunately stands right now. Fighting unions are desperately needed as billionaire hoarders amass wealth as the planet burns. The labor movement is also more popular than ever, and signs of struggle are emerging. Yet, in virtually every struggle during “Striketober,” union leaders held back struggle as rank-and-file workers wanted a more determined fight. As in the past, socialist activists can play an outsized role in labor if we offer a clear way forward to win. This means not shying away from criticizing labor leaders when they make mistakes or outright betray the working class.
Socialist Alternative was proud to put forward a resolution to this past summer’s Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) national convention, arguing that labor leaders are the key obstacle holding the movement back. Although our resolution was not ultimately passed, this perspective has been proven correct by events. Despite Kshama being a constant presence in Seattle workers’ struggles, there has been huge pressure on her over the years to tone down her criticisms of labor leaders. However, socialists have a duty to point the way forward to victory in every movement, even if this leads to sharp debates.
Union leaders with a class-struggle approach, even when they disagree with Socialist Alternative, have no fear of criticism when they value open and honest debate in our movement. However, many union leaders, even from unions who supported the Kshama Solidarity Campaign, didn’t agree with our approach to the Carpenters strike, the UPS contract vote before that, and our opposition to the cop’s union contract that was widely opposed by leaders of marginalized communities.
Some of the most conservative labor leaders, particularly in the building trades, openly supported the recall campaign. They even helped set up a PAC to try to have Kshama recalled and donated to the same PACs as the hated construction bosses, the Associated General Contractors of America. We named these misleaders and clearly registered our disagreements, and many union officials sharply disagreed with our approach. However, it is a principle for us that we tell the truth to the working class, and we will do it again.
Unfortunately, Socialist Alternative’s combative class-struggle approach to rebuilding a fighting labor movement stands in contrast to much of the left. For instance, India Walton’s Mayoral campaign in Buffalo was undermined by the union leadership who overwhelmingly supported her incumbent opponent. Instead of aggressively building rank-and-file support to oppose conservative union leaders, her campaign backed down from that fight and failed to polarize sufficiently against the shameful Democratic establishment. Instead, Walton focused on touting her endorsement of top Democrat and corporate shill Chuck Schumer in the final weeks of the campaign.
Shameful role of Democratic officials
Kshama runs openly as a member of Socialist Alternative, and she’s known for advocating for a new mass workers’ party and a clear break from the Democrats. On this basis, we nonetheless won the overwhelming support of local Democratic activists in the 43rd Legislative District, by an 83% majority. Seattle is somewhat unique in that local Democratic Party structures actually have activists and life in them, and we’ve found some support for socialist ideas in them over the years. This isn’t the case in most city Democratic parties which are often empty shells without activists that serve only the needs of careerist politicians.
Kshama and Socialist Alternative were also proud to get the endorsements of Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky, and other national figures along with the deep roots we have in District 3 and the rest of Seattle.
Despite our strong support from Democratic voters and activists at the grassroots, we were met with silence from most Democratic lawmakers (with a few exceptions at the state and county levels). Shamefully, not a single Democratic City Councilmember supported Kshama against the right-wing recall, not even the progressive Democrats like Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda. This was despite repeated attempts from our campaign and good faith efforts to work with progressives where we agree. At the same time, Kshama never held back criticisms when they are warranted, and we think more DSA elected officials should do the same when faced with progressive Democrats who fail to consistently stand with working people.
The progressive Democrats did poorly in Seattle’s November election. Working-class people are sick of the “woke” buzzwords of politicians that aren’t connected to concrete demands like rent control and taxing the rich. The establishment Democrats seized on the opening, backed by millions of corporate PAC dollars. While corporate shills like mayor-elect Bruce Harrell leaned on “law and order” messaging to deal with Seattle’s housing crisis, labor-backed progressive Lorena Gonzalez failed to provide any semblance of an alternative, ending in a series of desperate moves that backfired on her. Gonzalez not only avoided any mention of rent control or other working class demands, she failed to defend the Black Lives Matter movement against the pro-cop, anti-protest hysteria whipped up by PACs. She also refused to expose the big business backing and massive corporate PAC support for her opponent, likely because she did not want to antagonize big business herself. Harrell won in a landslide.
Lessons for DSA
Unfortunately, DSA-backed candidates Nikkita Oliver and Nicole Thomas-Kennedy both lost in Seattle this November. Nicole Thomas-Kennedy was defeated by a Republican (Seattle’s first elected one in 30 years) for City Attorney, and this was fueled partially by the right-wing backlash against BLM. Nikkita Oliver, a movement leader who was endorsed by Kshama, also lost their race, this time to an establishment Democrat. Unfortunately, Nikkita Oliver really didn’t campaign on rent control, on taxing big business, or other working class demands, instead leaning on 9 vague slogans.
Clearly what happened in Seattle, with the contrast between the November and December election results, counters the claims of some in the socialist movement that independent politics outside of the Democratic Party is a “death sentence.” The two candidates (Oliver and Thomas-Kennedy) who enjoyed the backing of Seattle’s progressive Democratic establishment lost, and the independent Marxist, Kshama Sawant, won. While political independence won’t necessarily result in electoral success, this shows the false narrative that running as a Democrat is an easier path for socialist change. And this is not limited to elections – the avoidance of antagonizing big business and the political establishment during elections is virtually always continued with a failure to build movements and fight while in office. Our single Marxist council office in Seattle, has won more significant historic gains for working people, like the $15 minimum wage and Amazon Tax, than any other self-described socialist elected officials, including those with the resources and platforms of national office.
In the final analysis, the Democratic Party is a barrier for workers, oppressed people, and youth trying to change society. Kshama runs independent of the Democrats to be a shining example that a working class party is possible and necessary. Instead of promising reforms if elected, Socialist Alternative always points towards the movements that will be indispensable to winning victories.
November’s Mayoral election in Buffalo also shows that socialists can’t have a “shortcut” to success by running in Democratic Party primaries. India Walton won the primary against the incumbent, but was defeated in the general election through a write-in campaign by that very same incumbent!
DSA is struggling to find a way to hold elected officials accountable, as is shown by the recent betrayal by Jamal Bowman and the continued debate around it in DSA. This should be an ongoing discussion, and simple organizational answers will not be enough. A thoroughgoing analysis and plan of action is necessary for socialists to effectively use elected office to build successful struggles and pave the way for a new mass party of the working class. Socialist Alternative would like to deepen our contribution to this important debate in DSA and the wider left, and our work and experience in Seattle gives us unique insight into this discussion.
Towards the final victory
While there is a current lull in street protests, society is deeply polarized and mass struggles are on the horizon. The socialist left can grow if we point a way forward for the labor movement and the fight against the growing right-wing populist threat.
Concretely, abortion rights are under direct threat. Socialists need to be at the forefront of the struggle to defend and extend reproductive rights. If the left stands aside from the labor and women’s movements in 2022, they will be led into dead ends and defeats by Democrats and bureaucrats. Instead, socialists will need to make bold and concrete proposals to widen a struggle willing to take the determined action to disrupt the capitalist system.
It is not just elections, but class and social struggle, that can lay the basis for a new party for working people. Workers produce everything, distribute everything, build everything, clean everything, heal the sick, teach the children, and provide all the services. This system can’t move without us. We can shut it down and build a new world based on the needs of humanity and the planet, not the greed of the few. Internationally, we need a world based on solidarity and democracy, in which the major corporations and world’s resources are owned and controlled democratically. We can win a socialist world if we get organized, and this election is an important but small contribution to that process.
As Kshama said in announcing our victory, “If a small revolutionary socialist organization can beat the wealthiest corporations in the world here in Seattle again and again, you can be sure that the organized power of the wider working class can change society.” Join Socialist Alternative and our international movement today!