Seattle’s Socialist Alternative: a Marxist’s puzzle of what to do when you win an election?

After being a Seattle Councilmember for a decade, Kshama Sawant will retire from public office at the end of December. In January 2023, Sawant announced she would not run again. This came eight months before the 2023 primary to select a new councilmember from Seattle’s District 3, widely seen as the most liberal district.  

Something was missing from her announcement. No one, not the media, Councilmember Sawant, and her political party, Socialist Alternative, mentioned it. There was no reference to SA running another candidate for her seat or any seat in the next round of council primaries. 

For a decade, Seattle had experienced having a self-declared Marxist on their city council. Not someone accused of being a Marxist, as MAGA folks and like-minded Republicans accuse anyone pursuing a progressive agenda. No, this was someone proudly declaring themself as Marxist. 

In this case, a public official who believed, as did her Socialist Alternative party, that Karl Marx’s theories were correct. The entire world would eventually have a stateless socialist society run by the workers, not the owners. There would be no private property accumulating profits. 

It was an odd omission for Sawant or SA not to announce another SA candidate to be running. That’s because Sawant always emphasized that she was working for SA’s political objectives, not pushing her personal political beliefs. 

In her announcement, she emphasized the importance of her party. She said, “My office and Socialist Alternative have been successful in fighting for renters and the working class.” And, “The reason I am not running for office is because we believe that work needs to be continued in and outside of Seattle.” In other words, SA would still be working in Seattle to make changes, presumably in the same manner that its most successful and visible member had done. 

For the entire period of Sawant’s term and even before as a candidate, she never sought to be a prima donna. Although critical of her, the media still loved her as an object of interest. She received more coverage than any other CM. In the last three decades, she surpassed all past ones but one term, independent populist CM Charlie Chong.

What is the takeaway from SA not engaging in electoral city politics when it successfully won a council seat and helped shape its policies? Is it because of her Marxism or her messaging? 

Marxists’ Record in Winning Elections 

A Marxist public official is even scarcer than a liberal Republican in American politics. But they are present in other democracies. Major democracies such as Spain, Belgium, Greece, Portugal, and France are represented in the European Parliament by Communist Parties that ascribe to some Marxist version of socialism. 

But there is no list of self-declared Marxists in public office in the US. An approximate measurement might be the number of Communist Party members elected to office. Currently, there is one in a small Pennsylvania Borough Council. The last Communist Party member in office was 73 years ago on New York City’s Council. 

However, the fear of Communists in government is a trope that Republicans occasionally drag out. In 2012, Republican Congressman Allen West told an audience in Jensen Beach that “he’s heard” up to 80 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are Communist Party members. Later, his office backtracked, saying he was referring to Democrat’s Congressional Progressive Caucus because the Communist Party publicly referred to it as an ally. This was a one-way assertion from them, perhaps because of their mutual support for raising the minimum wage. 

Socialists, by definition, are not necessarily Marxists; some are, and some are not, likewise with socialist organizations. In the U.S., Socialists in public office are much more common than Marxists, although still minuscule in numbers. While at least 30 organizations identify themselves as socialist in the U.S., only the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has a substantial membership. As of July 2023, they had 78,000 members, down from an all-time high of 95,000. By comparison, 

They have representation in Congress and state governments. Three endorsed DSA members are serving in Congress: Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Cori Bush. Senator Bernie Sanders is a self-declared Democratic Socialist but not a member of the DSA. And 51 state lawmakers are also DSA members. They comprise 0.9 percent of Congress and 0.7 percent of all state legislators. 

However, considering the number of members in Congress, DSA’s influence is limited, particularly in comparison to the Republican’s hard-right Freedom Caucus, which has, by the most recent estimates, about 70 members. Unlike SA and the Freedom House caucus, DSA is an open membership group with publicly released membership numbers. It’s also far more diverse than either group, having at least five different caucuses, ranging from libertarians to Marxists. 

The World of Socialist Alternative

Socialist Alternative is a closed-membership, dues-paying organization requiring prospective members to pass an interview before being allowed in to ensure that they agree with the organization’s political beliefs. That restricted membership is both a strength and a weakness.

Having screened membership allowed SA to select someone to be a candidate who would stay within their agenda. It also gave them a disciplined organization to execute a better ground game than any other candidate to get the vote out and win an election no one expected. Sawant’s initial election to one of America’s largest cities saw The Times of India, the world’s most widely circulated English-language daily, announce her victory. 

While not all Marxist organizations are the same, most use democratic-centralism to make decisions. Lenin’s Bolsheviks used it to form Russia’s Communist Party. Seattle’s SA is in line with that format, having a Seattle Executive Committee and, just below it, a City Committee electing its members.  

Like in all organizations, communication between their different levels is often fraught with questionable processes for reaching a final decision. A memo from a CC member to the SEC outlines her concerns: “where proposals are often presented either as fully agreed on by the SEC, not at all, or in an ambiguous manner where it’s unclear if the proposal is from an individual or the SEC as a whole.” This memo illustrates that Marxist groups are no better than capitalist corporations in having internal communication problems. At the same time, critics of those organizations assume they operate far more effectively than they do. 

Seattle’s Experience with a Marxist 

The ultimate weakness of an organization’s tightly closed leadership system is that it limits beliefs and information outside its control. Hence, leaders quickly discount input from others as invalid or unworthy of evaluation. This is the system that Kshama Sawant took with her to the Seattle City Council. Those familiar with how Sawant became a candidate insist that she became one out of an obligation and her desire to further SA’s mission to create a mass working-class party. 

She articulated that position in SA’s February 2021 magazine, explaining why she and other members were joining the non-Marxist Democratic Socialists of America, and, by extension, it could be used for why she joined the city council. She wrote the goal of SA’s members was “to advance the Marxist ideas that will be necessary to win both immediate gains in the present crisis and a final victory over capitalism’s exploitation and oppression.” That’s a heavy lift, mainly if one’s day job is to mend the fences in her seven-square-mile city council district. 

It is also a task made more difficult since she considered her fellow city council members to be part of “the corporate Democratic Party” and would not “hesitate to ramp up its attacks on socialists and working-class movements.” Of course, the same would be true of Republicans if Seattle had any on its council. 

Here is the conundrum that Marxists faced who got voted into local public positions. Their goal of dismantling the market economy and its political benefits to those with the most significant wealth and power is not a daily concern to constituents concerned with their city’s living conditions. They want their community to be safe and pleasant, their transportation system to operate efficiently, and their utilities and housing to be affordable and available. A string of other more seemingly mundane services would follow.

Seattle’s Socialist Alternative party was able to help push the city council to pursue and pass some efficient progressive legislation. However, the council had already gone down that road by passing one of the nation’s few Paid Sick Leave ordinances for all workers in the city without Sawant on the council. 

Once on the council, Sawant’s Socialist Alternative put an initiative forward to adopt a $15 minimum wage immediately and not have it adopted incrementally over some years. The mayor’s office and the business community feared that the initiative could pass, so they were much inclined to work for a quick solution.

That threat provided leverage for the progressives on the council to get the minimum wage increased to $15 in three years for all big businesses and longer for smaller ones. Seattle’s legislation did have a national impact. In a few years, dozens of other cities began increasing minimum wages, and states followed. 

Socialist Alternative, with Sawant’s office at their disposal, was also able to push the council to pass pro-renter legislation and ban police use of tear gas and rubber bullets as “crowd control weapons.” Sawant and SA labeled a payroll expense tax bill as the Amazon Tax since Amazon would pick up about a quarter of the tax because of its vast number of employees working in Seattle. The bill passed the council, but they repealed it a month later due to heavy opposition from businesses and some construction unions. Sawant voted against the repeal.

Two years later, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda sponsored a new employer tax on companies with annual payrolls above $7 million. Named JumpStart Seattle, it was based on the number of highly paid employees rather than total employees. Sawant would not join the other five council members in cosponsoring it.  However, despite the new legislation falling short of the revenue that the Amazon Tax would have provided, Sawant voted for it.

That reluctance to compromise is at the heart of why SA and other Marxist parties that engage in electoral politics have a difficult philosophical belief to overcome. Half-measure victories are not considered so much as victories as sustaining a corrupt political and economic system and hence forestalling the rise of a revolutionary mass working-class movement. For Marxists, according to SA, “socialism builds toward building a classless society based on solidarity and equality, with an economy run and democratically planned, where there is no capitalist class.” 

It’s a goal that has yet to be achieved anywhere. Trying to get there through local elections seems too tiny a brick to lay down. This may explain why even the most successful Marxist party in recent decades has only run two other candidates for city councils, one each in Minneapolis and Boston. Both lost.  Others may have run, but there is little leftist coverage of their efforts. Even vanilla socialists, derisively referred to as reformers by Marxists, have difficulty getting elected to public office. 

But when you have an organization that uses democratic-centralism, which either the left or the right can use, winning a public office means that office serves a party’s political agenda.

In an internal SA discussion paper, this approach was made clear. Citing resolutions​ ​from past​ ​ ​Congresses​ ​of the​​Communist​​ International,​​ SA members in any public legislative body must subordinate all council action to the activity of their outside party. The organization of the council SA faction must also be in the hands of their party’s central committee.

The most disastrous measure for SA was to carry the “defund the police” banner. However, the council ended up only slightly trimming the police’s massive budget, not cutting it anywhere near the slogan’s 50 percent. Nevertheless, SA convinced the public that the council would axe the police department. That resulted in a well-funded conservative backlash to toss out incumbent council members.

A Legislator is Not a Revolutionary 

To the chagrin of Marxists, having one or two elected legislators at any level of government will not result in any significant institutional change, let alone a revolutionary workers’ movement.

As in Seattle, it may result in legislation broadening services and redistributing the tax burden of providing those services to those who can best afford to pay for them. That is how democracies work. Marxists label existing democracies as bourgeois because they do not upend the market economy and oust those most benefiting from it. 

However, the democratic legislative process is slow and meandering. Quick decisions are rare. Those seeking swift, radical changes can be worn down. Sawant cited being one council member of nine as one reason to retire. Socialist Alternative will likely not run other candidates in the future, just like their national party hasn’t run candidates in other major cities since Sawant won in 2015. 

Socialist Alternative Marxists appear to be more comfortable focusing on national issues, not sitting on city councils where they are expected to respond to constituent issues that lack sharp class conflicts. With Sawant’s departure from the council, SA created a new program called “Workers Strike Back,” which Sawant was tapped to lead. It will focus on national political battles, directly organizing workers into a mass socialist movement. The dream lives on.  

Two Final Notes

I worked with Sawant as a fellow council member for the last two years of my eighteen years on the council. Despite her public persona as a rabble-rouser and a constant critic of the council, I found her warm and honest in a one-on-one setting. She was open about her beliefs and intentions without pursuing personal gain. Win or lose; we jointly supported progressive bills. And, while my direct contact with other members of SA was minimal, I didn’t see how they would financially or socially benefit from the positions they took. Their motivation was to promote the greater good. 

Five years ago, independent journalist Kevin Schofield dove into Socialist Alternative’s internal documents. The information was published in his newsletter, SCC Insight. I found it helpful in understanding SA’s workings and contributing to this piece. 

If you like this piece, email it to others. 
And if you can, become a patron or make a one-time donation to help me reach others. – Thanks, Nick
Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

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