What is the purpose of socialist organisations?

Two news stories from the USA this week grabbed my attention.

The first was the astonishing victory of a woman named India Walton in a Democratic Party primary in the city of Buffalo. With no Republican opponent anywhere in sight, Walton is almost certainly going to win the general election in November and become the mayor of New York’s second largest city.

As the Guardian reported, she would be “the first self-declared socialist to lead a major US city … since 1960, when Frank Zeidler stepped down as Milwaukee’s mayor.”

A day later, the BBC had a report on President Joe Biden’s proposed $6tn spending package. The money would go to issues like climate change, education, paid leave and childcare benefits. The package is “expected to include tax increases on the wealthy and corporations.“

This ambitious plan — wait for it — “is being drafted by Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist.”

Bernie Sanders ran for the Democratic nomination for the presidency twice and was defeated twice. His opponents, particularly Hillary Clinton, considered him to be a dangerous radical. Hardly any nationally-prominent Democrats supported his call for a “political revolution” or used the term “democratic socialist” to describe their views.

And yet the enormous success of the Sanders campaign — the millions of supporters he won, most of them young — has put him centre stage.

What soon-to-be Mayor India Walton and Senator Bernie Sanders have in common is not only their self-identification as socialists, but also the fact that they are currently, or soon will be, exercising political power.

Walton and Sanders understand something that not all socialists do, and it’s an important point.

Why do we organise political parties?

And by “political parties” I include organisations like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a successor organisation to the Socialist Party.

We do so because we want to win — and retain — political power. Without political power, we will not be able to do the things we want to get done.

That may seem obvious, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Many generations have passed since socialists won elected office — even though there have been times when the Left had a measure of strength in the U.S. (for example in the late 1960s).

The American Left’s ability to mobilise millions of people in the civil rights and anti-war movements was not translated into successful election campaigns.

Not only did socialists fail to campaign successfully as independents, but even those who chose the route of working inside the Democratic Party were reluctant to actually run for office.

The organisation now known as DSA debated whether to run their leader, Michael Harrington, as a Democratic candidate for president in 1980 – thirty six years before Bernie Sanders’ first Presidential run. The proposal was voted down, though younger members supported the idea enthusiastically.

If socialists don’t run candidates and don’t try to win elections, what is the purpose of their organisations?

There are many reasons to join a socialist organisation, and being with other socialists, learning about our movement, its ideas and its history, are of course important.

But so is the fight for political power, as India Walton and Bernie Sanders clearly understand.

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.