Kim Moody, Breaking the Impasse: electoral politics, mass action, and the new socialist movement in the United States, Haymarket Books, 2022.
US society is going through a prolonged period of political crisis. The US ruling class is incapable of providing for the mass of ordinary people. Millions are disillusioned with the political and economic system. Yet the US left finds itself at an impasse, unable, and seemingly unwilling, to break out of the confines of the Democratic Party. As the title of his new book suggests, Kim Moody argues that this impasse needs to be broken.
Decades of neoliberalism have driven down even the most basic of living standards, and multiple systemic crises have impacted the US in recent years, including economic problems, the COVID-19 pandemic and environmental destruction.
At the same time the country has been hit with mass demonstrations: teachers’ strikes in 2018, and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement, first in 2014 and then again in 2020.
It is within this context that the high-profile campaign of self-described socialist Bernie Sanders has taken place, and with it the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), swelling from a few thousand members prior to 2015 to over ninety thousand in 2021.
Moody is right to describe the Sanders phenomenon as anti-climactic. Absorbed quickly within the establishment Democrat presidential campaigns of both Clinton and Biden, the Sanders campaigns doomed thousands of new anti-capitalist hopefuls to either disillusionment or accepting the botched facelift Joe Biden is attempting to give to American capitalism.
Moody, with his consistent championing of the working class, provides a refreshing perspective aimed at restoring the classic Marxist assumption that socialism cannot be won without the independent self-activity of the working class.
The impasse Moody describes is twofold. Firstly, an impasse for the American ruling class. Moody describes a global political context of traditional right-wing parties moving further right, and social democratic parties embracing the centre. While the Democratic Party is a not a social democratic party, these shifts are reflected in American politics by the emergence of Trumpism, while the Democrats remain firmly in the centre. Neither party is capable of breaking with their own class interests to meet the needs of an increasingly disillusioned population.
The second impasse is one for the working class and the socialist left, with a seemingly one-sided class war between the organised sections of finance and production, and a largely unorganised working class. While the many crises of capitalism have produced sporadic but frequent upsurges worldwide, major projects of the left, such as Syriza in Greece or Corbyn in the UK, have found themselves caught up in electoral projects tied to the centre, treading water with the status quo rather than building an alternative.
Moody describes the Democratic Party as, “by any reasonable definition a capitalist party”, just like the Republicans. It is an organisation funded by major sections of US capital, including the Fortune 500 new blood such as Alphabet (Google), Amazon, hedge funds and a range of Silicon Valley capitalists. According to OpenSecrets’ listing, 58 of the top hundred individual political donors in the 2020 election cycle gave to the Democrats.
The party is also run by professional politicians and bureaucrats drawn from the upper echelons of society and ideologically committed to capitalism.
Unlike the Republicans however, the Democrats have some undeserved credibility as a party the working class has more sway over and interest in. Moody provides a critical account of the trade union bureaucracy and the role their strategy of “business unionism” has played in upholding this myth.
Moody also outlines a compelling argument against “using the Democrat ballot line”. Ironically the Democrats are characterised by an extreme lack of internal democracy. You can’t even join the Democrats like you can the Australian Labor Party. The Democrats don’t really have members – instead they have an extremely well-funded bureaucracy. So even the shift that led to the short rise of reformist Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party could never happen in the Democrats.
No surprise then that the party machine itself is rigged against the left. Primaries are more a weeding-out process than an opportunity for progressives to use the ballot line. If new candidates outside of the traditional establishment want to get ahead, they quickly need to start playing by the rules. Moody shows this clearly in Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC)’s 2020 run for Congress. AOC raised $10.5 million, compared to her challenger’s $2 million, with some big names in her donation list: Alphabet (Google), $71,795; Amazon, $42,805; Microsoft, $30,128 and so on.
Moody’s main criticism of the AOC campaign, and of Sanders’ as well, is that despite the money, time and energy poured them, not just by party hacks but by genuine left-wingers, they have left no organisations behind of the kind that would be required to build the kind of mass, independent working-class struggle the US so desperately needs.
Moody also describes the trajectory of socialists in the party as “upward and rightward”.
When it came to the election of House Speaker, AOC argued that there was no alternative to Pelosi. At the same time, despite easily pushing projects like the Green New Deal to the margins, Pelosi and the Democrats have not attempted to completely silence AOC or “The Squad” of liberal progressives but to integrate them. AOC was put on Biden’s advisory taskforce on climate change in reward for her support of the establishment Democrats.
As Moody explores, attempts to transform the Democratic Party, or at least use it in some form to advance the interests of the oppressed have been tried and tested many times. It’s also worth saying previous attempts occurred during eras of much greater class struggle than we see in the US today. Yet still, the result of attempts such as Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and the New Politics have not had any lasting effect on the party, or indeed left behind organisations fit to build an alternative to the Democrats.
Moody devotes the final chapters of his book to his perspective on where the socialist left should dedicate their energies.
His argument begins by demolishing the widely held mythology of the progressive legacy of the Democrats during the New Deal and Civil Rights era. The limited reforms that were achieved in these times were the result of working-class struggle and action, not benevolent gifts from enlightened liberals in the party. These same progressives instead played a role in winding-up and limiting the gains of these movements.
While today the working class is at a low point of struggle, and strike rates remain low, there are signs of hope. While the Sanders campaign did help popularise the word “socialism” and show an appetite for basic social provisions among young Americans, that appetite existed before he came onto the scene. In 2010, polling showed that 54 percent of young people already approved of socialism before it rose to 58 percent in 2019 (p.76).
At multiple times during the book Moody champions actions such the 370,000-strong teachers’ strikes of 2018 and the mass movement of Black Lives Matter in response to the murder of George Floyd as indications of what is possible.
He argues that the political impasse that has led to a choice between the far right and the establishment centre can only be broken by a mass social upsurge and the organisation of millions of so far unorganised members of the working class. Moody goes over debates on exactly how to go about rebuilding the unions, and lands not on convoluted strategies and small changes to bureaucracies, but the bread-and-butter organisation of the rank and file.
While involvement in elections may very well be a feature of a genuinely independent and working-class force in America, a break with the capitalist Democratic Party and the building of something independent is necessary. Moody also takes time to point out the difference between gains handed down from on-high, and genuine working-class power: “When Marx and/or Engels spoke of the working class taking political power in order to commence the transition from capitalism to socialism, they did not have in mind the president of the United States and Congress speaking and legislating from on high for a class of millions” (p.221).
For all of his insightful history and analysis of the inner workings of the Democrats, labour, industry and the US electoral system, Moody’s book shines brightest in its utmost trust in the working class to struggle and build a better world.
Armstrong, Mick 2016, “The broad left party question after Syriza”, Marxist Left Review, 11, Summer. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/the-broad-left-party-question-after-syriza/
Everett, Nick 2020, “We’ve been down this road before: Jesse Jackson, the Democrats and the left”, Marxist Left Review, 19, Summer. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/weve-been-down-this-road-before-jesse-jackson-the-democrats-and-the-left/
The Economist 2022, “Donald Trump’s hold on the Republican Party is unquestionable”, 18 August. https://www.economist.com/briefing/2022/08/18/donald-trumps-hold-on-the-republican-party-is-unquestionable