The campaign of socialist Kshama Sawant for the Seattle City Council continues to attract excitement on the left for her strong showing. A Counterpunch contributor recently called it a “highly significant” development. I wish her well of course. A socialist threat in the city of Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks is indeed heart warming. Hopefully the publicity will introduce some new people to socialism. But electoral campaigns are not a promising strategy for systemic change.
As a native of Reading, PA, one of only three cities in the country that were once controlled by socialists (the others being Bridgeport, CT and Milwaukee, WI), I can appreciate the genuine positive policy implications (The Historical Review of Berks County noted in 1965 that “the Socialists should be remembered for having given Reading the best municipal government it has had within the lifetime of any Reading citizen today”) and hopeful symbolism involved. It’s a bit like the emotions stirred up by electing the first black president. History, however, forces us to cast a skeptical eye on this route.
The idea of the revolutionary party goes back to Marx. Opposition to this conception of the path to socialism from Bakunin created one of the foundational splits of the anarchist-Marxist rivalry that has endured for generations since. Charged partisan score-keeping of these two factions of socialism is not particularly edifying in general, but on this question Bakunin is clearly validated by history.