Socialist Alternative, DSA, and the Problem with Third Parties

This past Wednesday, socialist third party Socialist Alternative published an article on their official website congratulating Democratic Socialists of America for gaining 21,000 dues paying members. Along with those kudos came a suggestion: form a new socialist party to build on the growth DSA has already experienced.

This would be a mistake.

To clarify at the start, I deeply appreciate what Socialist Alternative has been able to achieve so far, and am completely open to working with them to advance the cause of the working class. My criticism of their proposal doesn’t come from a place of malice, but a place of strategy. There’s already too much sectarianism on the Left, there’s no reason to create more.

The call for a third party to challenge the two party system of the United States is almost as old as the United States itself. However, each third party ends up running into one of two planes of limbo; either they burn out after a couple of years having achieved nothing, or they run a vanity candidate for President every four years that receives around 5% of the national vote and then goes away. Until we get something like the Fair Representation Act passed, which opens the door for ranked choice voting, it’s going to be very difficult to break the power of the two party system. The only way third parties have had a chance to really affect change is to go after local and state offices that don’t require as many resources as the bigger races. Both DSA and Socialist Alternative have taken this route so far, with some positive results.

The main point of difference, however, is that the Socialist Alternative have run their candidates under their own party banner, whereas the DSA mainly uses entryist tactics to have their candidates run under the banner of the Democratic party, often criticizing the party establishment to distinguish themselves apart from the neoliberal centrists. So far, DSA has been a bit more successful in this regard, with SA only able to elect Kshama Sawant to city council in Seattle so far, while DSA has been able to elect more than 10 different officials into local governments. with more campaigns forming every day to elect members and endorsed candidates to local office.

For the sake of argument, lets ignore the problems with running a third party in the US and pretend we’re founding one; the major problem still remains that both DSA and SA are both very small. 21,000 members is a great increase in membership, but in a country of 321 million people that’s incredibly minuscule. The explosion of left-wing sentiment in the wake of the Trump presidency has definitely brought socialism to the forefront of the conversation, there’s no doubt about that. However, you need numbers if you’re going to affect social change in the country, and right now we don’t have those numbers. We’re going to need to do much more outreach and recruitment if we’re going to get to the levels of Eugene Debs, who was able to get almost 1 million votes in 1912.

For now we should learn from the example of Jeremy Corbyn. Sure, the Dems are not the same thing as the Labour Party, but he and his comrades have provided us a great example for how to effectively take over the apparatus of a national party within the two party system. Imagine, for a moment, if DSA was able to get officials elected to have a controlling stake in a major metropolitan area. Wresting control of those areas from mainstream Dems can provide a real showcase for the platform we want to pursue, and create a stronger case for our cause. For now, I see that as the best move forward, especially as the 2018 primaries approach and whole new opportunities open up for us.



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