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Kshama Sawant

Kshama Sawant


By Jason Netek, Chicago

December 16, 2013 — Socialist Worker (USA) — There is a lot of debate among socialists in the United States about just how to engage in this country’s rigged electoral game, if at all.

In a time when the revolutionary left is numerically small, some socialist groupings have made a fetish out of participating in elections, local and national, in attempts to realise their ambitions of becoming the party of the US working class all by themselves. Others have made a fetish out of not engaging in any kind of electoral work for lack of a viable mass workers’ party or else as a permanent boycott of the objectively pro-capitalist electoral system in the United States.

In the International Socialist Organization (ISO), we have tried to think tactically about our role during elections, given our size and influence, and the strength of the movements at a given moment. The handful of times that we have either run our own members in local campaigns or endorsed a national campaign (as was the case with Ralph Nader in 2000 and 2004), the goal was to try to maintain some kind of left-wing pole of attraction opposed to the Democratic Party, and to keep the movements we’re involved in from being completely overshadowed and subsumed in the tremendous spectacle that is election season in the United States.

Nader’s bid in 2000, giving political expression to the broader global justice movement, had another element to the campaign that the modern left isn’t very used to; it had widespread popular appeal. Nader denounced the two mainstream parties as “Tweedledee and Tweedledum” to stadiums full of enthusiastic people, and in the election, nearly 3 million people voted for him.

With Kshama Sawant’s breakthrough election to the Seattle City Council last month, the question of how and when socialists should consider electoral work has taken on a kind of importance that it has not had for 13 years. Sawant ran as a member of Socialist Alternative and defeated a Democratic Party incumbent with an energetic grassroots campaign that put forward three key demands: a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a rent-control ordinance to make housing more affordable, and a tax on millionaires to fund transit, education and other public services.

One could make the case that these are not explicitly socialist demands, but that misses the point altogether. These demands were an attempt to connect to the mass sentiments of the current period, as well as raise all of our political horizons a little bit. The United States is a country where the general populace has been raised to excuse and even admire the extremely wealthy and to blame themselves for structurally enforced mass impoverishment. The Occupy Wall Street movement shattered the myth of this consensus and raised the issue of inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power in structural terms.

It has been said that what happened in Seattle was that Occupy went to the polls. In Minneapolis, Socialist Alternative’s Ty Moore came within 230 votes of winning a seat on the city council by running a similar campaign.

Given this fact, it is hard to say that what happened in Seattle was an anomaly of the city’s special conditions. These two socialist campaigns are significant in that they have articulated something that many people all over this country are feeling in their guts.

Bill De Blasio, the first Democrat (in alliance with the Working Families Party) to be elected mayor of New York City in more than 20 years, ran a campaign that successfully painted him as a populist-challenger to the pro-Wall Street agenda of previous administrations. Of course, he is already backing away from the promises he made during his campaign, but he’s a Democrat … that’s what they do.

Bernie Sanders, the nominally independent senator from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, has said publicly that he would consider running for president in order to ensure that progressive ideas have a hearing in the election. Of course, what Sanders means by “progressive” is a wing of the Democratic Party, as opposed to something fresh, new and genuine. There also is no real reason to believe that this is anything more than posturing in an attempt to grab some headlines. Leftists in Vermont know that what Bernie Sanders really stands for is re-electing Bernie Sanders. Still, it’s telling that the senator feels that he has to do more than just criticize the obstructionist Republicans in Congress in order to maintain his lefty credentials.

What does this all mean? It means that there is a palpable anger with the profound inequalities in this country that didn’t go away just because the Occupy protests dissipated.

For those on the left who are still wondering aloud whether or not that is what is happening, consider that two dozen city councillors just got elected in Ohio on an “Independent Labor Party” ticket. Their purpose was to punish the Democrats for “one too many sellouts” of their labour base.

There is a political shift underway, and it’s time to recognise it. De Blasio is a textbook example of how the establishment parties seek to capitalise on our resentments, Sanders represents some of the perils of supposed “independents” with no real connection to social movements or organisation, while Sawant represents the possibilities for something altogether more meaningful.

Given the scale of the crisis that working people face, there is a serious need for some optimism that our side can fight back not just on the picket lines and in the streets, but even at the ballot box. Every possible political break to the left should be encouraged.

If the union-led revolt against the Democrats in Ohio could be replicated in other places, it could give the whole labour movement a reason to lift their heads. If a few Green or independent candidates could make a splash here and there, it could give every progressive-leaning person a reason to think outside the two-party system.

Most importantly, between now and the 2016 presidential election, we will likely see a higher level in socialist electoral activity, but not all of it will be created equal. Some groups will invariably see this as a moment to run token campaigns in an effort to win over another recruit or two.

For those of us who wish to see a socialist movement that is greater than what we already have, this could be an opportunity for meaningful collaboration on a programmatic basis. A few well-organised socialist campaigns that have roots in workplace and neighbourhood struggles, which can raise relevant demands, could assist in the development of a more significant fighting left — something this country desperately needs.

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The Black Rock


The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class-Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, 1620–1877

By Charles Post
Publication year: 2011

Historical Materialism Book Series, 28
ISBN-13 (i):
978 90 04 20104 0
90 04 20104 1
Number of pages:
xvii, 300 pp.
List price: € 99.00 / US$ 141.00

Most US historians assume that capitalism either “came in the first ships” or was the inevitable result of the expansion of the market. Unable to analyze the dynamics of specific forms of social labour in the antebellum US, most historians of the US Civil War have privileged autonomous political and ideological factors, ignoring the deep social roots of the conflict. This book applies theoretical insights derived from the debates on the transition to capitalism in Europe to the historical literature on the US to produce a new analysis of the origins of capitalism in the US, and the social roots of the Civil War.

Charles Post, Ph. D. (1983) in Sociology, SUNY-Binghamton, is Associate Professor of Sociology at Borough of Manhattan Community College-CUNY. He has published in New Left Review, Journal of Peasant Studies, Journal of Agrarian Change, Against the Current and Historical Materialism.

“Explaining the origin and early development of American capitalism is a particularly challenging task. It is in some ways even more difficult than in other cases to strike the right historical balance, capturing the systemic imperatives of capitalism, and explaining how they emerged, while doing justice to historical particularities… To confront these historical complexities requires both a command of historical detail and a clear theoretical grasp of capitalism’s systemic imperatives, a combination that is all too rare. Charles Post succeeds in striking that difficult balance, which makes his book a major contribution to truly historical scholarship.” — Ellen Meiksins-Wood, York University, author of The Origins of Capitalism: A Long View.

“In The American Road to Capitalism, Charles Post offers a brilliant reinterpretation of the origins and diverging paths of economic evolution in the American north and south. The first systematic historical materialist account of US development from the colonial period through the civil war in a very long time, it is sure to be received as a landmark contribution.” — Robert P. Brenner, University of California-Los Angeles, author of Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Early Modern Europe and Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653.

“Charles Post has written an excellent book on the origins of American capitalism in the antebellum North, on plantation slavery in the Old South and on the cataclysmic conflict between them. His interpretation is bold and controversial; it will have to be considered by all scholars in the field.” — John Ashworth, University of Nottingham, author of Slavery, Capitalism and the Antebellum Republic

“This is the most original and provocative materialist interpretation of the origins and dynamics of US capitalism for a long time. Post combines impressive command of the historical sources with a sharp analytical understanding, not least of the centrality of agrarian questions to the development of capitalism.” — Henry Bernstein, University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies and China Agricultural University, Beijing, emeritus editor Journal of Agrarian Change.

“Over the past three decades, Charles Post has been developing an original and powerful interpretation of the American road to capitalism. This volume brings together his most important essays in what is sure to be a landmark volume. Post brilliantly analyzes the structural basis of economic development in both the North and the South, culminating in a powerful interpretation of the social basis of the Civil War. The book is one of the best examples of historical sociology that I have seen in recent years, effortlessly melding theory and historical research. This is engaged scholarship of the highest order.” — Vivek Chibber, New York University, author of Locked In Place: State Building and Late Industrialization in India.

Table of contents:

Foreword by Ellen Meiksins Wood

1. The American Road to Capitalism
i. Plantation-slavery
ii. Agrarian petty-commodity production
iii. Capitalist manufacture and industry
iv. Conclusion: the Civil War

2. The Agrarian Origins of US Capitalism: The Transformation of the Northern Countryside before the Civil War
i. Rural class-structure in the North before the Civil War
ii. Debating the transformation of northern agriculture
iii. The transformation of the northern countryside, c. 1776–1861

3. Plantation-Slavery and Economic Development in the Antebellum Southern United States
i. The ‘planter-capitalism’ model
ii. The ‘non-bourgeois civilisation’ model
iii. Class-structure and economic development in the antebellum-South

4. Agrarian Class-Structure and Economic Development in Colonial British North America: The Place of the American Revolution in the Origins of US Capitalism
i. The commercialisation-staples model
ii. The demographic-frontier model
iii. Agrarian social-property relations in colonial British North America
iv. Colonial economic development, the American Revolution, and the development of capitalism in the US, 1776–1861

5. Social-Property Relations, Class-Conflict and the Origins of the US Civil War: Toward a New Social Interpretation
i. Ashworth’s social interpretation of the US Civil War
ii. A critique of slavery, capitalism and politics in the antebellum-republic
iii. Toward a new social interpretation of the US Civil War

Conclusion: Democracy against Capitalism in the Post-Civil-War United States
i. Democracy against capitalism in the North: radicalism, class-struggle and the rise of liberal democracy, 1863–77
ii. Democracy against capitalism in the South: the rise and fall of peasant-citizenship, 1865–77
iii. The defeat of populism, ‘Jim Crow’ and the establishment of capitalist plantation-agriculture in the South, 1877–1900


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‘Uncaptive Minds’ Public Meeting hosted by The Commune

The next of our London forums will be looking at modern imperialism. The coming to power of the Obama administration in the United States has led many people to believe that there will be a change in American foreign policy: yet the western military presence in Central Asia and Latin America is set to increase; the Eastern European nuclear defence shield has been abandoned with the aim of securing Russian support against Iran; and the war in Afghanistan continues unabated.

What is the strategy of imperialist domination today? With the rise of China and India, are there one, two or many imperialisms? What forces really challenge imperialism? Join the debate with speakers:

Andy Higginbottom
Latin America solidarity activist

Marko Bojcun
Ukrainian Marxist and writer on Eastern Europe

From 7pm on Monday 19th October at the Lucas Arms, Grays Inn Road, near King’s Cross station



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