Ditching Class Struggle Elections

Dan D.

As socialists it’s not enough to simply interpret the world, we seek to change it. To change the world it takes power. Power is the ability to affect meaningful change in the world. The proponents of Class Struggle Elections (CSE) make several claims for how this strategy builds power in our movement:

  1. CSE grow power inside the state 
  2. CSE foster class consciousness while promoting movements outside the state
  3. CSE help build capacity and attract new members  

Do CSE build power? Let’s explore each of these propositions in turn. 

State Power 

CSE rests on the notion that the state stands above capitalism and can intervene in it in a politically neutral form. Thus, socialists should focus on “growing power” inside the state— winning elections, gaining control of the government, and passing legislation that benefits workers. Proponents of CSE see no contradiction between a ‘big state’ and socialism, despite the fact that state intervention – regardless of where it is on the political spectrum – has always played the fundamental role in expanding, enforcing and defending the market.        

Let’s assume a contingent of socialists is elected to government. We’re still confronted with the fact that ‘taking over government’ and ‘having state power’ are two different things. The bureaucratic, legal, and military apparatus of the state all enjoy a degree of independence from the institutions of representative democracy. Historically, state managers have been hesitant to support legislation that was viewed as a threat to the “general interests” of society —usually understood as business interests. If policies that threaten corporations are introduced or passed, capitalists may respond with a capital strike, providing a powerful last-line of defense against structural reforms. CSE claims to overcome these barriers by invoking mass movements. But there’s a catch, it’s politicians that will summon mass movements in defense of reforms. Let’s see if this claim holds up.    

Class Consciousness  

CSE are based on a flawed, one-sided conception of class consciousness that distorts the relationship between socialists and workers. According to the theorists of CSEs, socialist consciousness is introduced into the working class by the discourse of socialist parties and politicians. Workers must be convinced to engage in class struggle. It is the task of socialists to educate workers and provide them with leadership. The role of workers is reduced to the task of executing the socialist program, which they did not participate in developing. This hardly sounds like the self-emancipation of the working class.

The idea that workers need to be prodded into action is easily refuted by numerous historical examples where events sparked upsurges of class struggle, the adoption of innovative tactics, and new forms of organization. Socialists have often found themselves “tailing” the movement and have had to adjust their theories accordingly. Therefore, we should be skeptical of claims that politicians or parties can simply call forth mass movements from above in a frictionless feedback loop. Rather than having confidence in workers to take up their own fight, the CSE framework imagines them needing to be convinced into action. Rather than imagining movements putting forth their own objectives and demands, CSEs anticipate these movements’ own demands will be obediently subordinated to the initiatives of socialist politicians and parties. This way of understanding class struggle is disturbingly close to what Hal Draper criticized as a “mass movement from below to achieve a Socialism-from-Above.”

Building Capacity 

Central to the issue of building capacity is our concept of the relationship between struggle, movements, and elections. Participating in election campaigns builds the capacity of the organization to do exactly that. By focusing heavily on elections the organization develops a narrow capacity that is ill-suited for other arenas of struggle. This became immediately apparent in the recent uprisings against police violence. A heavy prior emphasis on electoral activity trained DSA members in a type of politics that was very different from militant protest, and organizationally left DSA without direction in this crucial moment. DSA approached the mostly spontaneous uprising based on its previous experience with short-term demonstrations and ended up disoriented by the continuous actions confronting the state. Any capacity-building strategy that doesn’t recognize the role of uprisings, mass strikes, and other semi-spontaneous clashes will miss the heartbeat of class struggle.


CSEs misconstrues state power as class power. Socialists in government will encounter structural barriers that limit reform efforts. Overcoming these barriers rests on the belief that mass movements can be conjured by politicians. History shows us this is false. The DSA needs a smarter, more balanced approach towards elections.