‘What Kind of Break from Democrats?’: A Response to the ISO


On July 18, the International Socialist Organization posted to its website a contribution from ISO member Owen Hill about how socialist organizations should relate to the Democratic Party. The article, titled “What Kind of Break from the Democrats?” has been posted at:


A number of ISO members have forwarded this article widely, arguing, as one ISO member put it, that, “If you’re going to make a case for a clean break from the Democrats, this is the best way to do it.”

But is this really a “case for a clean break from the Democrats”? No. Hill’s thesis undermines what has been a principle for socialists for more than 100 years, going back to Eugene V. Debs and the early Socialist Party. It is a piece that disarms in the fight for a truly clean break from the Democratic Party.

Hill begins his article by asserting that the “dirty break” strategy put forward in the pages of Jacobin magazine “has much in common with the traditional revolutionary socialist view of electoral politics and the Democratic Party.” By “dirty break” he means a strategy that “argues that the temporary use of the ballot line of the Democratic Party can, under specific conditions, be a way to build up the strength of socialist organization before launching a new party.”

To be fair, Hill notes that while the “dirty break” strategy is “compelling” in many ways, “revolutionary organizations should remain committed to a clean break strategy, with an orientation on continuing to deepen lines of solidarity and cooperation with those implementing a dirty break strategy.”

Still, and this point is decisive, Hill makes it crystal clear that for him the difference between “dirty break” — that is, running candidates inside the Democratic Party — and “clean break” is not one of political principle. He writes:

“[T]he debate between dirty and clean break is not a debate on the grounds of principle. Both strategies, as I understand them, share the principle of independent organization of the working class. The conditions for using capitalist party ballot lines outlined by the dirty break strategy rest on candidates being recruited, funded and disciplined by independent committees of socialists operating outside the apparatus of mainstream political parties.”

A possible vehicle for independent politics?

Is running socialist candidates inside the Democratic Party a possible vehicle to promote the independent organization of the working class? No. The opposite is true.

Running “socialist” candidates inside the Democratic Party — even if “temporary” and “under special circumstances” — subverts the very notion of working-class independence. It sends the message that one of the twin parties of the bosses can be utilized to advance workers’ interests, when history has shown time and again that taking this road only leads to co-optation by, and capitulation to, the very “apparatus” of the Democratic Party that one is supposed to be combatting.

In this regard, it is useful to recall the long and sordid history of the “inside-outside” strategy deployed over the years by the U.S. Communist Party and by all too many others on the “left.” It’s a history of subverting genuine attempts by the unions and socialists to put forward independent working class alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans. (And here I must state my strong agreement with the numerous critics of the article by Eric Blanc, published in Jacobin under the title “The Ballot and the Break,” in which the author argues that the “dirty break” was successful historically in the case of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party in the 1930s.)

When you accept the premise that running candidates inside the Democratic Party is NOT a question of principle, you have taken the first step down the slippery slope back into capitalist politics.

A game-changer?

But wait a second, we are told by advocates of the “dirty break” strategy: There is a new development, a game-changer, that cannot be ignored — and that is the revitalized Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the new crop of DSA candidates running inside the Democratic Party as “socialists.”

alexandria_ocasio-cortez_-_ocasio.jpg_1718483346Hill writes:

“If nothing else, the election of [DSA member] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shows the radical benefits for the popularization of socialist politics that these opportunities can yield. Being forced to give up these opportunities by not using the Democratic ballot line is a major disadvantage for the clean break strategy.” [Note: Ocasio-Cortez defeated Democrat Joseph Crowley in the Democratic Party, but she has not yet been elected.]

“Popularizing socialist politics”? The political positions advocated by Ocasio-Cortez are no different from those advocated by most “progressive Democrats.” This was fully evident in the interview she gave NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on July 1st, to mention just one of many such press interviews.

But that was not all that came through in her interview with “Meet the Press”: Not only did she play down her DSA credentials and give a watered-down version of the meaning of “democratic socialism,” when asked if she would support the removal of Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats, or when asked if she would block Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, she fudged, refusing to give a straight answer.

Such are the pressures that inevitably bear down on the best-intentioned candidates running inside the Democratic Party — a party funded and controlled by the capitalist class.

A goal, albeit a “secondary goal”

Ocasio-Cortez is not an advocate of a “dirty break” with the Democratic Party; she has pledged her loyalty to that party. This appears to be the case of most of the DSAers running for political office, with at least one exception — Julia Salazar, who is running on the Democratic Party ticket for New York State Senate as a socialist. Salazar advocates “dismantling the capitalist system and empowering the working class and the marginalized in our society,” but she admits that she is running in the Democratic Party to help “realign it,” albeit as “a secondary, not a primary goal.”

julia salazarWhen asked if socialists should only run outside the Democratic Party, Salazar replied: “To mobilize people around socialist politics, you have to engage Democratic voters, and you can’t do that in any meaningful way without running on the Democratic Party line in my district.” (Interviewed by Meagan Day in Jacobin magazine)

This last observation ignores the fact that a majority of working-class voters consider themselves independents. The Democratic Party is not the only show in town. Shouldn’t Salazar be running instead as part of an independent labor-community slate organizing to promote a new mass independent working class party?

Sending a mixed message

Let there be no false polemics: After reviewing the pro’s and con’s of “dirty break” vs. “clean break,” Hill comes out in favor of a “clean break.” He argues against the idea that the left can take over the Democratic Party. But in his quest to have a friendly dialogue with DSA activists who support running in the Democratic Party, he bends the stick and sends a mixed message.

Failing to take a principled stance on this fundamental question enables Hill to conclude his article as follows:

“In my opinion, it is clearly to the benefit of the whole movement if a section of organized socialists remain committed to the strategy of the clean break, provided they view the dirty break section not as rivals to be proven wrong, but as fellow travelers attempting a strategy which we hope will succeed.”

So let there be a division of labor: One section of the organized socialists can run its candidates inside the Democratic Party, while another remains committed to a “clean break.” And let’s not hope the advocates of running inside the Democratic Party are proven wrong; let’s hope they succeed.

Today, the victory of Ocasio-Cortez in the New York primaries is being raised by all supporters of “lesser-evil” politics to show that it is possible to advance progressive politics inside the Democratic Party, and that it may even be possible to take over the Democratic Party. Her victory is being wielded to oppose any and all attempts to build independent labor-community coalitions aimed at running truly independent candidates against the Democrats and Republicans.

The Democratic Party leadership has learned over decades how best to co-opt “left-wing” advocates running inside their party. It’s the Democratic Party establishment that is likely to succeed — just like they’ve always done. They’re the ones who run the show.

Supporting both “clean break” and “dirty break” confuses socialist cadre as well as the working class at large. It provides the expectation that the interests of the working class can be addressed within the framework of the capitalist parties. It diverts workers from organizing in their own name and, in so doing, confronting their oppressors. It belies the fundamental concept as articulated by Marx and Engels that “the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself.”


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