Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – a Socialist in Congress?

Dave Stockton

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez caused a sensation on June 26, 2018, when, in the primaries for New York’s 14th congressional district, Bronx and Queens, she defeated the chair of the House of Representatives Democratic Caucus, Joe Crowley. She then went on to win the election, becoming the youngest woman to enter Congress.

The sensation was heightened by the fact that she also defines herself as a democratic socialist.

Widely known by her initials, AOC, she is 29 years old and from a working class, Puerto Rican immigrant family. After entering the House on January 3, one of three self-designated socialists, she soon hit the headlines with her introduction, co-sponsored with Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, of a resolution calling for a Green New Deal.

This consists of an ambitious set of goals for the reordering of US society and its economy to fight the looming climate emergency whilst, at the same time, addressing some of the more pressing economic problems, like the health care crisis and out-of-control income inequality. Its preamble states:

“…the GND would be a historic opportunity to create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States.”

The proposal is based on a set of principles, number 8 of which calls for “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and disability leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.”

Number 9 talks of “strengthening and protecting the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain, free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment.”

Given the composition of the present House, the Senate and the Supreme Court, not to mention the present occupant of the White House, such proposals can hardly expect to become law – in the foreseeable future. So how might they be won? Well, not in Congress or the State Houses that’s for sure.

Only a holy fear inspired by a mass revival of a militant working class movement, which the recent teachers’ strikes have shown to be possible, will extract even the most modest reforms from the US ruling class. This is all the more so when it is bent on winning trade wars with China and Europe as well as spending billions on rearming for a Cold War with Russia, not to speak of hot wars in the future.

The election of three open democratic socialists in the US, however, is a mark of the radicalization that Trump’s presidency has called forth, especially from women, people of colour, youth and militant sections of workers like the teachers.

AOC puts her victories down to having built a coalition of socialists and broader social movement activists willing to take up her cause.
“DSA played a very important role, but so did Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, so did Justice Democrats, so did a lot of labor and tenant organizers, Muslim community organizers, young Jewish organizations. We were very deliberate about building a coalition of people that were on the forefront of activism in the progressive movement.”

AOC is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, DSA, whose membership has grown by a factor of ten during the Trump presidency, from 6,000 members in 2016 to 60,000 in 2019. Another DSA member, Rashida Harbi Tlaib, was elected as Representative from Detroit, Michigan’s 13th District.

So, what is AOC’s definition of socialism?

“Broadly speaking, what it means to be a democratic socialist is to have a vision of a world where everyone is taken care of. We’re fighting for a society in which people are valued over profit, in which everyone has access to the things they need not just for basic survival but to thrive. In my campaign this translates to specific shorter-term policy positions including universal single-payer healthcare, expanding the rent stabilization system statewide and enacting universal rent control, ending cash bail and policies aimed at eliminating mass incarceration, and so on.”

In another interview she said, “what my policies most closely resemble is what we see in the UK, Norway, Finland and Sweden.”

This “socialism” differs little from the policies of progressive left of the Democrats; the sort of welfare state being demolished in Europe, often with the help of people who still call themselves “democratic socialists”. Other DSA members, like New York State Senator Julia Salazar, have been a bit bolder, saying “a democratic socialist recognizes the capitalist system as being inherently oppressive, and is actively working to dismantle it and to empower the working class and the marginalized in our society.”

It is certainly good that she mentions the agency of the working class because socialism without this means nothing more than social liberalism. But it should be noted that America has neither a mass independent working class party nor trade unions willing to free themselves from the political hegemony of the capitalist class. Both were necessary to force the European ruling classes to agree to their post-war welfare states.

However, even Julia Salazar’s avowal is no more than the classic definition of reformist socialism; a distant goal of a transformed society combined with reforms within capitalism for the here and now. How to get from the one to the other is by a path of democratic legislation. Of the class struggle there is scarcely a mention in the interviews by the new congressional socialists.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging that, since Donald Trump’s election, and the massive women’s mobilizations which kick started resistance to him, the term socialism has become attractive to the ranks of those marching and organizing to elect women like AOC. Indeed, numbers of ‘socialist” candidates are coming forward, most within the Democrat party and many also linked to the DSA.

This should raise the question of what sort of party we need to actually carry out socialist measures. It also raises the issue of whether this can be achieved, or even begun, from within the Democrats. After all, this party has been the instrument for containing and bringing to nothing many powerful social and political movements. It is known as the graveyard of radicals. Is AOC’s “method of forming coalitions of the oppressed and exploited” really a fundamental break with the Democrats’ “big tent party”?

This was at its zenith from Roosevelt to Johnson; a party within which various communities and exploiting, as well as exploited, classes, negotiated for reforms for their clients. It was this very method that nipped in the bud the promising potential of independent labor representation and socialism as a mass force in the early 1900s and again in the mid 1930s. It kept the US workers voiceless, with no political representation as a class, for the last half of the twentieth century.

Of course, democratic socialists like AOC will say that standing as Democrats is the only way to get on the ballot. Leaving aside the possibility of building powerful local organisations, rooted in the militant trade unions, this prompts the question of what compromises of principle have to be made by members of the Democratic caucus in Congress. Indeed, there are signs that AOC is already feeling the conservatizing effects of the Congress. She complains in a recent interview:

“I think there was a real attempt to get me to really rip apart the establishment and create this antagonistic fight in the wake of my win. I rejected that because that was a narrative that some others were trying to advance, but that was not my plan. I’m not going to allow this movement to get hijacked by an energy of antagonism when what we are really trying to advance is a positive and progressive vision for America’s future.”

This is the problem with reformists; they always see the class struggle as hijacking their patient and peaceable search for reforms whilst, in fact, they are hijacking the fighters from below for an electoral road to what turns out to be a reformed capitalism, not working class socialism.

Soon after entering congress she voted with the Democrats for the budget, which ended the standoff with Trump over the funding for his infamous Wall. She had hitherto campaigned publicly and vigorously not only to stop funding the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, ICE, which hunts down “illegals” but for its abolition. True, within weeks, she resumed campaigning for ICE’s abolition, but principled socialists have always seen voting for the capitalist state budgets as an unpardonable expression of confidence in the system; hence the slogan “not a person and not a cent for this system”.

Socialists in America need a totally different sort of party from the Democrats or, for that matter, the British Labour Party, even when led by a “democratic socialist” like Corbyn. It needs a party of the class struggle, of the picket line, of self-defence against racist cops and the ICE. For such a party, elections can indeed be a useful tribune from which to argue for a generalization of struggles, to explain that socialism means the expropriation of the exploiting class and its dispossession from state power. In short, it means a party that recognises that a socialism that is not revolutionary, is not any socialism.