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From The Socialist newspaper, 20 November 2019

Amazon bosses defeated in Seattle - Kshama Sawant reelected

Socialist Alternative Seattle city councilwoman Kshama Sawant

Socialist Alternative Seattle city councilwoman Kshama Sawant   (Click to enlarge)

Robert Bechert , Committee for a Workers' International

The attempt by bosses of Amazon and other companies to effectively buy control of Seattle city council was defeated by a city-wide reaction against their takeover attempt.

Despite the big business-dominated Seattle Chamber of Commerce spending over $4.1 million in the election - $1.5 million of which came from Amazon - they were unable to change the council to prevent any radical challenges to their interests.

In particular, they failed in their aim of defeating the left-wing councillor, Kshama Sawant. Kshama's victory was a welcome defeat for Jeff Bezos, the Amazon boss and richest man in the world, and his fellow plutocrats.

The amount companies spent on this city election, nearly five times their previous spending high, showed the hostility of Amazon and other big business bosses to attempts by some Seattle city council members to implement reforms that would even slightly impinge on their vast profits.

They feared that this would become an example to be followed in other cities and states.

But the scale of this spending, equalling over $5 per head of Seattle's 756,000 population, provoked both a polarisation and an angry reaction.

In particular, there was widespread hostility after Amazon's mid-October $1 million donation to the Chamber of Commerce.

It was seen as an attempt to 'buy' the election and thereby the council, in the same way that Amazon has bought into at least 128 companies in the last 20 years.

It became a whip of reaction which provoked a backlash. The result was that all but one of the candidates Amazon and Co backed was defeated in the 5 November election.

A central target of Amazon's campaign was Kshama Sawant. She was first elected as a socialist to the council in 2013, in a city-wide vote, and then reelected in 2015, as the councillor for Seattle's District 3.

The city's polarisation was shown in District 3 by a jump both in the number of registered voters and those who voted.

Despite Seattle's current economic boom, there are deep economic and social problems facing the city's population, particularly the rapidly increasing cost of housing.

The contrast between this and the huge profits Seattle-based big companies like Amazon are making played a part in the defeat of their attempt to get a tame, pro-big business council.

'Amazon tax'

Previously, in 2018, Amazon and other bosses successfully got the Democrat-controlled Seattle council to rapidly reverse its unanimous decision to impose a modest annual 'head tax' on businesses with revenues of over $20 million a year in order to build affordable housing units and expand services for the homeless.

But a few weeks of an Amazon and Starbucks-led campaign resulted in the council voting to repeal this tax, with only Kshama Sawant and one other councillor voting against.

Amazon's electoral intervention, coming after the 2018 experience, changed the election dynamics. It became both a nationally reported issue and a factor in Seattle's election.

As a columnist on Seattle's main newspaper wrote a couple of weeks before the vote: "Now (the election) could well be a referendum on Amazon and corporate power".

The result was that, despite the money it spent, big business failed to meet its political targets in Seattle.

However, the Seattle council, like in most US cities, remains dominated by the Democrats. They have always been, in essence, a pro-capitalist and pro-big business party, something illustrated by their rapid capitulation last year on the Amazon issue.

When Kshama Sawant was first elected in 2013 her success achieved national and international attention.

This was because it was the first time in many years an openly declared socialist had defeated a capitalist politician in any major US city.

The symbolism of this election victory taking place in Seattle, the home of Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks, is not lost on many people.

After her 2013 victory, Kshama, and the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), explained that her campaign had been based upon "not taking any money from big business and running independently from the Democrats, not seeking the endorsements of the Democratic Party establishment...

"What's striking is that an open socialist won the seat, that the campaign did not take any money from big business and did not rely on the Democratic Party apparatus to win.

We need the left to draw on these lessons and realise that there is an opening to build movements and to build a viable anti-capitalist, anti-corporate working people's alternative to the two big business parties." ('Victory for socialist in Seattle!'

New workers' party

Following on from her first victory, Kshama urged Bernie Sanders at a New York public meeting that they both spoke at, to follow her example and run independently in 2016 for the presidency. Sanders obviously saw the potential that Kshama's election represented.

He decided to try to stand in the 2016 presidential election but not, as Kshama did, as a socialist running independently from the Democrats.

Instead, Sanders chose to run on a radical, but not socialist, platform for the Democratic nomination and ended up endorsing Hilary Clinton.

This was not just a lost opportunity to take a mighty step towards building a party of the US working class and oppressed.

It also threw away the possibility of limiting Trump's populist appeal to some sections of the working class and thereby preventing his election.

Unfortunately, in recent months the emphasis that Kshama and her organisation had placed on continuing to take steps towards the building of an independent workers' political party, and emphasising that she was a socialist, has lessened. An inconsistency developed, with these issues not being generally raised.

This change became one of the issues in the recent debate among CWI comrades internationally that led to a division in our ranks, earlier this year.

Despite our political differences and separation with Kshama, the refounded CWI supported her re-election.

Following requests from Kshama's organisation, Socialist Alternative, we did not do anything during this election that could have been publicly interpreted as harming her campaign.

Naturally, Kshama's victory is being celebrated on the US left as a success; her defeat would have been trumpeted as a setback both for socialists and left organisations outside the Democratic Party.

However, this time Kshama's victory will not be seen so clearly as a step forward for building an independent workers' political organisation and building support for socialist policies because of the shift which has been taking place within Kshama's political organisation, Socialist Alternative.

In this election, Kshama's campaign put great emphasis on what it described as building "maximum unity against big business".

Obviously, socialists stand for workers' unity in the class struggle. While this election was a limited form of class struggle, building electoral support was obviously important.

The fact that some local Democratic Party organisations supported Kshama's reelection was to be welcomed.

But accepting such support needed to be accompanied by arguments aimed at convincing those Democratic supporters who were open to left ideas that the Democratic Party - a body which nationally is neither democratic nor a real political party - is not an organisation which can be transformed into one that fights for working people.

There was a blurring of lines between Kshama and 'progressive' members of the Democratic Party, leaving open the impression that Kshama was a candidate on the fringes of the Democratic Party, somehow linked with both 'progressive' and more mainstream Democrats.

She was lavish in her praise of the Democratic representatives who supported her, saying she was "proud to receive the endorsement" of two Seattle council members who, last year, voted to repeal the city's 'Amazon tax'!

This adaption towards accepting Democratic Party support and downplaying the struggle to build an independent workers' party is not any form of 'united front'.

For Marxists, a united front is between workers' organisations. But even when jointly campaigning with other forces in an election, it is necessary to maintain one of the principles of the united front, namely, each component retaining and explaining its independent political position while cooperating on concrete goals.

Yet this idea is steadily being lost by Socialist Alternative. While recent longer texts by Socialist Alternative have repeated the arguments for a new party and mentioned socialism, these have been downplayed in their more widely distributed material.

Socialist programme

For socialists to hide or downplay their ideas is an opportunist step. It leads towards abandoning linking today's struggles with the need to build support for a socialist programme, and a movement which can implement them, which is a basic idea that Marx and Engels put at the end of the Communist Manifesto.

There are some similarities between the situation in the US today and that in Britain in the late nineteenth century when politics was dominated by two capitalist parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, and the majority of trade unions followed the Liberals.

But Kshama and Socialist Alternative are moving away from what Friedrich Engels, co-founder with Karl Marx of scientific socialism, then described as key: "In our tactics one thing is thoroughly established for all modern countries and times: to bring the workers to the point of forming their own party, independent and opposed to all bourgeois parties."

Kshama's reelection is an important defeat for the bosses of Amazon and Co and can lead to genuine reforms being made in Seattle.

But there are severe limits as to what a single councillor can do. The longer-term significance of this election success will only be seen by what extent it contributes to an increase in the number of independent working-class and socialist candidates running in US elections, the steps made towards the creation of an independent workers' party, and how support for a clear socialist programme is built in the US.

Unfortunately, the answer to the question of what Kshama's reelection will mean for the building of an independent workers' based socialist movement in the US is open.

Socialist Alternative's increasing downplaying of both consistent socialist arguments and campaigning for the vital steps needed to build a socialist alternative in the US, opens the way towards a political adaptation to those forces that are unwilling to break from the Democrats.

This is a road which has led to lost opportunities for socialist policies in the US many times in the past.

The CWI will strive to help activists in the US to take the opportunities to build the socialist movement necessary to end capitalism in the world's number one imperialist country.

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