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When Bernie Sanders stormed on to the 2016 presidential campaign stage, many branded him as “too socialist”. However, for his rivals further to the left, the Vermont Senator is not the right person to be carrying the banner of democratic socialism. For them, his views are hardly socialist, compared to the political revolution with which they hope to end capitalism in the United States. Emidio “Mimi” Soltysik and Angela Walker are running for President on the Socialist Party USA ticket. Their platform is openly radical, if not revolutionary, and their objective isn’t votes but visibility. The campaign is crowd-funded, and because neither candidate is a full-time politician many campaign appearances are made via Skype. They will only appear on the ballot in a handful of states while having write-in status everywhere else.
^ Mimi Soltysik is an activist by vocation, and the Social Party USA's nominee for the 2016 US Presidential elections. | Wikimedia Commons
“Obtaining ballot status for a third party, especially a revolutionary party, is incredibly difficult,” says candidate Mimi Soltysik, 41. “Ballot access laws are quite prohibitive.” With his June web-address to supporters Sanders began re-tooling his campaign to encourage a tactical vote for Sen. Clinton to beat Trump, without giving a formal endorsement. Sanders is continuing his campaign by pushing strongly — and successfully — for a more radical platform within the Democratic Party. Soltysik and Walker on the other hand are pushing forward with their campaign outside the two major parties, running for President while talking about revolution, and insisting that elections alone are not the answer.
According to Walker and Soltysik, their campaign is about giving expression and a platform to the struggles of everyday people, not to themselves as individuals. The mainstream candidates, including Sanders, campaign with the benefit of Secret Service details, and speak to crowds of thousands. Soltysik, a community organiser, and Walker, a bus driver who is also a mother and grandmother, work their day jobs and campaign in their free time, speaking to small groups of supporters in leftist spaces and in live web addresses, and organising social events in restaurants and supporters’ houses.
Both underline that their campaign does not seek to lead but rather “stands in solidarity” with social movements and with the struggles of workers, African Americans, people of colour, women, the LGBTQ community, migrants and indigenous people.
Though they don’t see Sen. Sanders as a truly socialist candidate, they both recognise that his campaign has piqued interest in socialism among the US electorate. They would like to take that energy and push it further left, but have limited resources to do so. Their campaign platform, fully applied, would translate into the end of capitalism in the United States. Soltysik and Walker call for the full socialisation of healthcare, transportation, energy and education, along with massive reforms of the criminal justice (including the abolition of the FBI) and electoral systems, full empowerment of all marginalised communities and open borders.
The Socialist Party USA occupies a unique place on the U.S. radical left. The socialist title may bring to mind the large social democratic parties of Europe, like the Spanish Socialist Workers Party or the Social Democratic Party of Germany. These parties began as Marxist-influenced mass movements that sought to overthrow capitalism through a combination of street agitation and electoral politics. Over the course of the 20th century they gradually evolved into reformist parties, abandoning their revolutionary trappings and focussing instead on improving social and economic equality within the existing capitalist framework. The SPUSA models itself on the older, more radical vision, and rules out “collaboration with capitalist parties” in its declaration of principles.
Eugene V. Debs is said to have influenced many a Left-leaning politician today. Interestingly, though, Debs had been a Democrat for much of his political career, till a jail sentence allowed him to read up on socialist theory. After which, he dedicated the next three decades to fighting the socialist cause.
Debs stressed that people should use their own heads to extricate themselves from their social ills, instead of looking to a hero to make their society great again. Ahem. That trumps everything, doesn't it?
The SPUSA considers itself to be in political continuity with the original Socialist Party of America, founded in 1901 and led by Eugene V. Debs. Under Debs the party grew to count thousands of registered members and numerous elected officials, including the Mayor of Milwaukee. Debs ran for President five times, gaining more than nine lakh votes in both 1912 and 1920, campaigning even while imprisoned for his active opposition to WWI. Subsequently plagued by sectarianism and largely overshadowed by communist outfits, the party faded from view, dissolving in 1972 after having moved significantly to the right and renaming itself the Social Democrats USA. Two new outfits emerged from the end of the SPA: the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which, led by former SPA activist Michael Harrington sought to pull the Democratic Party to the Left, and the SPUSA, which sought to emulate the original political strategy of the Debs era, seeking a non-violent, democratic revolution to transform the U.S. into a socialist country, without collaborating with the Democrats.
Soltysik’s general mood is both upbeat and determined, if at times highly ideological. He came to socialism after a troubled youth, spent largely as a musician.
“To me everything was about escape,” says Soltysik. “A lot of it was trying to escape from myself.”
He grew up in the industrial town of Reading, Pennsylvania, and according to him “got into a lot of trouble” while in his teens and 20s, when he moved to Los Angeles with his band. After struggling with drugs and alcohol to the point of incurring serious health problems, Soltysik says he felt a need to reorganise his life. He says he started seeking out a greater sense of community, and became increasingly aware of the social, racial and economic injustices in the society around him.
Soltysik felt that a lot of approaches to society’s problems were little more than “trying to put a Band-Aid on cancer,” and he began reading and studying about how to change the world, permanently.
“And when you get to that point socialism is not far around the corner,” says Soltysik. He says it became possible to identify what the “cancer” was.
“It’s capitalism,” he says. “You can also identify what is the solution; that’s socialism.”
Soltysik began working as a community organiser and became active in leftist politics, in particular organising against police brutality. In 2010, he joined the SPUSA. In 2014, Soltysik ran in the primary for California’s 62nd State Assembly, finishing sixth and receiving 2.5% of the vote. He ran a campaign that he describes as “unapologetically revolutionary”. The Socialist Party USA's national convention chose Soltysik as their candidate for President in October 2015. He says that running for office the first time was a powerful experience, from which he learned a lot, especially by going door to door and presenting the case for socialism, one person at a time.
The candidate for Vice President is Milwaukee-based bus driver and activist Angela Walker, 41, who has previously run for Sheriff of Milwaukee County in 2014, drawing 25% of votes away from the incumbent while running as an independent socialist.
Walker, who is a mother of one and grandmother of three, is currently a school bus driver, after having worked for years as a public transit worker and union organiser. She says her first political experience was in High School, where she organised her classmates to fight for an African American Studies class, successfully. She joined the SPUSA in 2015, having been politically active as an independent socialist for years, more recently in Occupy and Black Lives Matter.
Walker says that after her run for sheriff, she didn’t want to ever run in another race, but Soltysik convinced her.
“I hate fundraising,” she says, laughing.
Walker says that while she prefers grassroots organising to campaigning for office, she believes it’s an important tool to get socialist ideas out there.
Some on the left are highly sceptical of the Soltysik/Walker campaign, or dismiss it outright. The SPUSA only has about 1,000 members (the DSA, which is not a party and doesn’t contest elections, has around 5,000) and their 2012 presidential candidate, Stewart Alexander, only polled 4,430 votes with ballot access in three States.
“The Sanders campaign represents an attempt to bring the outside energy of the left into the Democratic Party, which is a necessary step for the left to gain momentum and win reforms,” says Todd Gitlin who, in the 1960’s, was a New Left activist and president of Students for a Democratic Society. He is now chair of the PhD programm in Communications at Columbia University.
Mimi Soltysik feels that most approaches to solving society’s problems are merely “trying to put a Band-Aid on cancer”.
“That outside energy is dissipated, and worse, when it heads toward a third party,” says Gitlin, referencing the 2000 Green Party candidacy of Ralph Nader.
In 2000 the Green Party made a concerted effort to challenge the two main parties by running a strong presidential campaign with environmental activist Ralph Nader. The campaign was highly visible, drawing endorsements from publications such as the Village Voice and director Michael Moore, and receiving nearly 30 lakh votes. Because the election was so close, the Greens were accused of having placed George W. Bush in the White House, and in following years ran much smaller campaigns. This is one of the main factors in Sanders’ decision to run as a Democrat and not as an independent.
“The Socialist Party USA role is completely irrelevant,” says Gitlin. “Harrington’s vision is what the Sanders movement has an opportunity to realise.”
DSA activist and historian of the Left Maurice Isserman agrees.
“There is next to no chance that a Socialist Party, running its own candidates, will ever again gain a fraction of the influence enjoyed by the Socialist Party in the era of Eugene Debs,” he says. Isserman is Professor of History at Hamilton College and author an award-winning biography of Michael Harrington.
“The Sanders' campaign fits perfectly with DSA's strategy of being (in the words of founder Michael Harrington), the ‘left-wing of the possible’.”
While the SPUSA is a registered political party, the DSA is not, but rather a non-party organisation. It has tended to give critical support to Democratic presidential candidates, but some members in the past have supported SPUSA candidates or candidates from the Green Party. In this race the DSA has thrown its weight behind Sanders, launching the #WeNeedBernie campaign.
Soltysik, Walker and the SPUSA view the electoral process very differently. They say that they don’t aim to win, nor wish to, and see the election simply as an opportunity to gain visibility for radical movements and positions, provoke debate and spread socialist organising networks.
“You can’t implement socialism from the top down, you know? This has to come from the bottom up, it’s a grassroots, community-based movement,” says Soltysik.
“If we won, by day one we’d be war criminals.” For Soltysik and Walker, the very act of assuming office would mean complicity with the US’s military role in global conflicts, something they oppose on principle.
While Soltysik and Walker recognise the positive impact of the Sanders campaign, particularly regarding increasing socialism’s recognition in the US, both strongly feel that supporting his campaign was never an option. In addition to not supporting “capitalist parties,” as a matter of foundational principle, Soltysik and Walker argue that Sanders’ economic vision is social democratic, not socialist. And, in line with Debs’ uncompromising anti-militarism, they claim that Sanders’ foreign policy views, while considerably to the left of the Democrats, still back U.S. military hegemony and support for Israel.
Soltysik says that despite this he believes it very important to dialogue with Sanders supporters, something that he says happens on a daily basis.
On the risk of taking away votes from Sec. Clinton and indirectly aiding in electing Trump, Walker is resolute. She says that both candidates represent the interests of the capitalist system, and that nobody should feel forced to “hold their nose” and vote for one of them.
“You should be able to vote on what you believe,” she says. For Walker, like for Soltysik, real change happens at the grassroots level, not through elections, and she invites people to get directly involved in changing the world around them.
“Those candidates aren’t going to move what you need done, you have to do that.”
Hearing this it’s hard not to think of Debs, who, speaking to a gathering in Detroit in 1906, said “I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.”
It’s important to note that while emulating the strategy espoused by Harrington, Sanders himself has been significantly influenced by Debs. In 1979 he wrote and directed an audio documentary about him, and personally voiced the parts where Debs was quoted. He keeps a portrait of the Socialist leader in his Senate office.
Debs was released from prison in 1921, politically defiant but physically weakened. He was given an ovation by thousands of fellow prisoners as he left and was even invited to the White House the next day, where he met then-president Warren G. Harding. He lived 5 more years, dying in 1926 at age 70. His ghost has always haunted U.S. politics, both in the guilt of the mainstream that sent a man to prison for opposing a war and in the nostalgia of the democratic socialist movement which has never since seen a leader so capable of rallying the working class to a vision of socialism that is both revolutionary and democratic.
Sanders may have hit upon the right approach for the Left in the U.S. Then again, he may have inadvertently rejuvenated the Democratic Party with bodies and minds that in another situation might have re-founded an independent radical left. What’s certain is that doubted, debated, feared and hated, Deb’s dream of a socialist U.S. refuses to die.