The American secular religion may be a steadfast belief in the potency of bourgeois democracy, but today the youth are by and large non-believers. Those who retain hope for the prospects of politics increasingly recognize the centrality of alternative forms of struggle. As Ricardo Soto demonstrates in “Political Disengagement among the Young,” Generation Z is the generation most open to socialism in at least a century. They are not merely frustrated with capitalism, but looking for a radical exit. This provides an unprecedented opportunity, but also necessitates we determine the tactics best suited to leveraging this opening, not just for our party but also for the mass movement as a whole.
In light of this necessity, Soto argues that our party should abstain from participation in bourgeois elections, claiming it discourages potential youth recruits from joining the party and drains resources better diverted to cadre development. He writes:
We do not have any type of concentrated power wherein we can demand concessions from the ruling class. Our primary focus should be on accumulating that power and organizational capacity. . . . This means focusing on internal structure and training as well as sacrificing participation in some struggles that might seem more immediate but wherein we cannot have any statistically tangible effect on the eventual outcome of said struggle. The primary example of this is the 2020 elections.
This article will offer an alternative perspective: despite the youth’s despondent attitudes towards bourgeois institutions, they nevertheless see elections as a necessary site of political struggle and are unlikely to rally behind an abstentionist line. Further, I will argue that participation in elections from a revolutionary standpoint (i.e., using bourgeois democracy to upend bourgeois democracy) is not only tactically valuable, but it also facilitates the development of the party in terms of both growth and cadre development.
The youth and elections
In the last four or so years, we have seen incredible growth in mass political mobilization. Millions are embittered towards capitalism and right-wing politics and are openly expressing it. The demographic that seems to be doing this the most is the youth (ages 18–29). Less than 10% of them believe that the government is working as it should be, and a significant 39% believe that what is needed to solve that is the replacement of our institutions with completely new ones. Their eyes are opening to the potentiality of a qualitatively new form of government; this vision is often associated with socialism. Support for capitalism among the youth has dropped by 16 points since 2010, and openly socialist and communist organizations, including our own, have all experienced spikes in membership. This demographic, more than any other, represents the future of our party.
The above facts may make it seem as if adopting a position of abstention from the bourgeois electoral process is the surest way to appeal to the youth. But, while young Americans have certainly shifted more and more to the left, they still see elections as an important site of political struggle. From 2014 to the 2018, youth voter turnout in midterm elections increased by a whopping 79%—the largest increase since at least the 1980s. Progressive political campaigns have seen a surge of support and energy from youth, and even comprised the active element of the national Sanders campaign. Despite their despondence towards bourgeois democracy, youth are using the vote as a weapon of political struggle more than before, not less. As such, adopting abstentionism in an attempt to appeal to them is, more likely than not, going to backfire on the party.
The balance of forces between the capitalists and the working class can be altered through the electoral struggle.
As it stands, these electoral campaigns will proceed with or without the input of the party. The rise in youth voter participation and the growing strength of the progressive movement is not due to any organization’s directive, but because the developing American mass struggle currently largely revolves around the ballot box. Bourgeois democracy, despite its unpopularity, still represents an avenue from which the proletariat can extract concessions from the ruling class. The idea that American democracy exists to defend the rule of capital does not change the fact that the balance of forces between the capitalists and the working class can be altered through the electoral struggle. Alienating ourselves from the current center of class struggle doesn’t advance mass consciousness but instead delays it, as the party and its influence are separated from where the mass of politically active, left-wing youth is.
More importantly, electoral campaigns against the right have important, positive effects on the mass struggle. The recent explosion in political consciousness among the youth largely centers around issues traditionally considered under the purview of the left. This includes the movements against climate change and police brutality, along with the growing discontent towards the 1%. As the Communist Party, we have the ability to link up the current issues the working class struggles for with their logical progression, what Marx called our duty to “fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but . . . also represent and take care of the future of that movement.” For example, while we support the Green New Deal against the Democratic establishment and the right, we also emphasize the fact that the source of impending environmental collapse is capitalism and the most effective solution to climate catastrophe is socialism. Similarly, we must connect the struggle against police brutality to the wider struggle against the bourgeois state as a whole, which represents the real source of the white supremacist and terroristic nature of the police. Not only does this method develop political consciousness on a mass scale, but it has also allowed us to reach directly to politically active youth and increase our ranks through party participation in marches, mutual aid, workshops, etc., where these issues are often the main focus. Electoral campaigns, forced by mass consciousness to center and therefore sharpen the conflict surrounding these issues, bolster socialist consciousness and the strength of our party—even if it is done inadvertently.
There is no fundamental contradiction between voting and alternative forms of struggles, including mass protesting.
Also of importance is the effect that these campaigns have on community organization. By the nature of the structure of political campaigns, participants, mostly volunteers, are able to interact and form relationships with each other in a friendly, political environment. They organize together online and in-person and often engage with organizations that they see working alongside them. The involvement of a political party not organizationally attached to the Democrats is thus very valuable here. We offer a non-transitory political vehicle for progressives to join that has a long history of radical organizing and innumerable connections with unions, organizations like the NAARPR, and the international socialist movement. One of the steps of constructing a powerful progressive movement is deepening the interconnection between electoral and non-electoral struggles. There is no fundamental contradiction between voting and alternative forms of struggles, including mass protesting. During the recent BlackLivesMatter movement, for example, voter registration actually spiked among both Democrats and Independents. By synthesizing these forms of struggle, our movement is able to unite and appeal to the widest amount of the working class possible. Due to our political structure, we can also play an important role in both deepening intra-community organization and connecting progressives across the US, forming a movement that is not only strong at the community-level but also an organized national political force.
Direct involvement in these campaigns further offers us the opportunity to rub shoulders with politically active, progressive youth, who may otherwise be difficult to reach due to the party’s weak social media presence. Speaking of the experience of the New York district, participation in the electoral struggle has led to the recruitment of many young comrades eager to help develop the party and the movement. Building connections with these youth is not only valuable in terms of increasing membership to the party, but, importantly, it also helps lay the social groundwork for future left-wing organizing and the eventual anti-monopoly coalition. The rising tide of socialist consciousness is driven largely by these progressive youth, and not attempting to reach them where they engage in political struggle is a mistake that will lead to the isolation of the party. Neither do we have to hide or change our political views; we already share with this demographic both an anger at the limitations of bourgeois democracy along with a willingness to nevertheless use it as a political weapon. If anything, the introduction of our perspective into these struggles will serve to energize the movement by providing a long-term political target that synthesizes these : the political rule of the working class.
The 2020 election
While the party can, and has, played an important role in electoral campaigns at the community level, Soto is correct in pointing out that our influence at the national level is negligible. The outcome of the 2020 election is not going to be changed by us. Nevertheless, by utilizing the advice of the CPUSA Political Action Committee (“elections are a time to educate ourselves and the working class”), we can help develop the overall struggle against both the far right and the Democratic Party establishment along with our party.
The first fact that must be established is that, more than anything else, the 2020 election does not represent just a struggle between two factions of capital but a struggle between the far right and a broad coalition that, while politically dominated and led by the liberal capitalist class, is forced into an alliance with the progressive working class. As Scott Hiley writes in “Dialectics: The Science of Struggle,” the Democratic Party “depends on an electoral coalition that includes organized labor, women, people of color, and other oppressed groups.” The result? “Inconsistency and desperate vacillation . . . a party pulled back and forth, contorted into the most nonsensical positions by contradictory interests.” It is precisely because of this contradictory character of the Democratic Party that it can be utilized as a vehicle to challenge the political dominance of the two-party system as a whole. Due to the fact that, as Hiley writes, “the liberal-democratic wing of the ruling class has lost, or is well on the way to losing, the ability to impose its own priorities on the struggle against fascism,” the independent working-class movement is already, under threat of the extreme right, growing as an independent movement with its own political objectives within the party of the liberal-democratic bourgeoisie.
The election also represents a struggle against white supremacy.
The situation becomes even clearer once we understand that the election also represents a struggle against white supremacy. While neither Biden nor Trump intends to disrupt the fusion of racism and capitalism that has defined America for centuries, it cannot be ignored that the forces of extreme right ultranationalism have coalesced and flourished under the presidency of the latter. Trump’s election, his far-right rhetoric, and his increasingly vicious attacks on minorities have served to strengthen the right not only in America but also internationally. Identifying this aspect of the Trump presidency, the Cuban Communist Party, in 2016, described Trump as “appealing to the racism, brutal individualism, stupidity and violence that have been present—since its origin—in the nation that believes it is superior to the rest of the world. His candidacy has brought out the worst in the U.S. and has turned it into an organized political force” (my emphasis). It is for the same reason that fascists across the world, such as the perpetrator of the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, openly declare themselves Trump supporters.
While many of what Soto describes as “younger, novice communists” may believe that we should take no sides in the election, the working class, and the youth in particular, understand the necessity to defeat the far right before further gains can be won. According to polling, 58% of youth say they support Biden, a percentage significantly higher than both those who support Trump (24%) or who support neither (18%). Approaching the question from the perspective of race reveals even more staggering results: 78% of Asian youth surveyed and 73% of Black youth support Biden, while 72% of the youth voting for Trump are white. Much like the party, these pro-Biden youth generally don’t support Biden himself or the class he represents—but they do instinctively understand that compromises are forced onto the working class before it is strong enough to assert its own interests. Adopting the line that the party should refrain from taking sides may appeal to a small subset of “self-described, Marxist-Leninist, young workers,” but it will weaken our ability to engage with the working class as a whole and the non-white working class in particular. Rejecting the tactical priorities of the workers in their struggle against capitalism in favor of appealing to a minority of super-revolutionaries is an excellent way to separate the party from the working class and cause it to lose its revolutionary compass. We, like the progressive working class as a whole, understand that to topple Trump for Biden is to strike a blow against the far right as an “organized political force.” It does not signal an end of the mass struggle, but a step forward from which the struggle can only be deepened and advanced even further than before.
Elections and cadre development
Soto argues that participation in elections diverts resources that can be better spent on cadre development. Because the party is not in a position to decide the 2020 election, dedicating our attention to it seems like a futile exercise. Rather, it is argued, “we must organize where our organizing makes a difference; right now, our organizing makes the most difference internally.”
To “graduate,” a cadre must also engage and advance the mass struggle wherever possible.
In reality, however, it is impossible for any revolutionary party to focus on organizing internally. Political education in the party must take the form of both instruction and participation in the mass struggle. What differentiates our political party from a university is that in our party it is not enough to simply absorb knowledge through study; rather, to “graduate,” a cadre must also engage and advance the mass struggle wherever possible. One transforms from a hobbyist of political theory into someone who is “ready to organize workers, promulgate the party line, and fight for the working class” (as Soto writes) not after a certain level of knowledge or training has been acquired, but only after they have achieved the ability to synthesize theory and practice, to actively combine the working-class movement with scientific socialism, through experience.
Participation in the electoral struggle does not impede internal development, but facilitates it. A party member must be able to keep pace with the politically advanced sections of their communities, their current level of consciousness, and their needs. For example, the national sentiment against police brutality contains within it hundreds of different political positions and policy recommendations. The question of whether a party club should advocate for bail reform, the removal of police from certain sensitive areas (such as schools), or the defunding of their local department, etc., cannot be answered by a “one size fits all” solution and requires social investigation and relationships with one’s community. The electoral struggle provides a central site where fraternization and relationship building between party members and their local communities can take place, not as a replacement of but alongside other tactics, such as the distribution of propaganda or mutual aid. Party members will be able to test firsthand the efficacy of different forms of propaganda, agitation, and organization, and need to apply what they have learned from older and more experienced party members to truly understand it.
The party has, more than ever, a need for young, fresh, and energetic membership. To this end, we have engaged in numerous initiatives, such as increasing our social media presence and re-forming the Young Communist League. But we must also have a correct political and tactical line. Today’s youth are more politically conscious—and more politically active—than they have been in decades. They are expressing this political activity through a variety of tactics. In order to strengthen the socialist movement as a whole and our party in particular, we must, too, utilize every avenue of struggle against capitalism. If we seek to bring the working class forward, we must meet them where they are.
In a debate about parliamentarism in the Communist International, Lenin argued:
Can one think of any other institution in which all classes participate to the same extent that they do in parliament? That cannot be created artificially. If all classes are drawn to participate in the parliamentary struggle, then it is because class interests and conflicts have their reflection in parliament. If it were possible everywhere to stage, let us say, immediately decisive general strikes to make a clean sweep all at one go, then the revolution would already have taken place in various countries. One must, however, take account of the facts, and parliament represents the arena of the class struggle.
Over the course of the last 250 years, the American working class has not only experienced victories in their economic struggle, such as Social Security and increased wages, but also in their political struggle for the expansion of civil and political rights. These struggles have changed the terrain on which we fight today. It is now our task not to lose hope that socialism has not yet been won, but find solace in that we, with a legacy of historic gains in hand, are able to continue the painstakingly long struggle for an end to capitalism.
The author thanks Cordelia Belton for her help in writing the article.