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Socialist Alternative, with District 3 as model, creates new path for voters

IMG_7977Unknown-1You’ve seen the banners at political rallies and the sea of red t-shirts packed into City Hall. Socialist Alternative, a little known group outside Occupy and social justice circles just a few years ago, is a significant force in Seattle political activism.

The rise of SA has almost everything to do with the rise of it’s most prominent member, City Council member and District 3 candidate Kshama Sawant. With Sawant as the frontrunner in the August 4th primary, SA’s foothold in District 3 politics only seems to be growing stronger.

So, what is Socialist Alternative, exactly?

Technically, SA’s Seattle chapter is a registered nonprofit advocacy organization in Washington state. The national organization, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, is nominally based in New York City. The organization doesn’t qualify in Washington as a “major political party” because it hasn’t run a candidate for president that has received at least 5% of the vote. Since Seattle elections are officially non-partisan, it is mostly irrelevant in regards to how the primaries play out.

It’s a much different story when it comes to the politics.

In practice, SA is an activist organization pushing a democratic socialist agenda that only recently became involved with electoral politics, beginning with Sawant’s unsuccessful 2012 challenge to House Speaker Frank Chopp. SA member Jess Spear also failed to unseat Chopp in the 43rd District last year. Sawant has said that she originally joined the group in 2009 after hearing a speech by a SA member.

The membership-based organization receives most of its funding through member dues. In 2012 (the latest year information publicly available through IRS filings) the national nonprofit accumulated around $140,000 in revenue, mostly through dues. SA says it doesn’t fundraise for Sawant’s campaign:
Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 2.37.27 PM

While the organization lists leadership positions for tax and legal purposes, SA organizers say major decision making is made through a 30+ member national committee with representatives from around the U.S. and Canada.

The elected body, which Sawant sits on though is not listed on SA’s website, only meets every other year. Otherwise, the organization is relatively decentralized with branches of varying sizes and levels of activity in some 50 cities. A Socialist Alternative newspaper is published out of New York City.

The Socialist Alternative newspaper

The Socialist Alternative newspaper

According to New York-based national organizer Bryan Koulouris, SA has its highest profile in Seattle, with Sawant acting as the veritable face of the organization nationwide.

“Socialist Alternative more than tripled its membership nationally in the last two years,” said Koulouris, who is in Seattle this week to help out in the the last push for Sawant’s campaign. Koulouris declined to say how many members SA currently has nationally or in Seattle.

Beyond attending rallies and marches en-massse, Seattle’s Socialist Alternative membership has been a pool from which Sawant has repeatedly drawn from. SA members are heavily represented in Vote Sawant, $15 Now, and Sawant’s City Council staff.

Philip Locker serves as both the political director for Vote Sawant and SA’s local spokesperson. Like SA, Locker said Sawant is ultimately trying to build a broad political movement where holding elected office is more of a means to an end.

“Her election and her campaigns have helped advance (SA’s) message and that’s part of her intention,” Locker said.

The organization traces its roots back to a group of activists who started organizing in 1989, though it didn’t become Socialist Alternative until 2000. Koulouris said the organization was hesitant to use “socialist” in its name as negative Cold War-era associations with the word remained prominent through the 90s. The distinction is still spelled out as a part of the organization’s mission:

The dictatorships that existed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were perversions of what socialism is really about. We are for democratic socialism where ordinary people will have control over our daily lives.

Around Capitol Hill, SA is essentially mainstream. A strong contingent of Democrats in the area even gave a nod to Sawant in this year’s primary endorsement vote. James Apa, chairman of the 43rd District Democrats, acknowledged the party’s appeal with some of his members.

“From what I’ve heard of SA support, there’s definitely common ground with what 43rd Democrats have consistently supported: providing a living wage, making housing more affordable …” he said. “But you also need to be able to put action to the rhetoric to make a real difference for people.”

Even though Socialist Alternative insists it will remain an activist organization at its core, the benefits of raising the group’s profile through elections has been undeniable. More candidates could be in the pipeline.

“As we grow and develop … it’s definitely something we’ll be looking at,” Koulouris said.

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68 thoughts on “Socialist Alternative, with District 3 as model, creates new path for voters

  1. “Socialist” or socialism started in the early 1800’s with its roots in the French revolution and the Spring revolutions of Europe in the late 1840’s. The bloody Socialist revolutions continue in the 1900’s with Russia in 1918, China, Cuba, most of South America.

    It IS what socialism is really about.

    • If you wanna troll and spread misinformation, that’s all you get: No it’s not.

      Clutch your pearls. We’re coming.

      • I dare you and your lot to try to take my hard earned income from me with your populist socialist policies…the United States is not immune to the people rising up against a corrupt and immoral government such as a socialist one.

        In fact, that is how this great nation was built.

        I agree with the previous poster that Stalinism and Chavism are EXACTLY what socialism truly is…uneducated masses being riled up by a populist leader.

  2. For a “socialist” Sawant sure didn’t seem to have a problem spending those dirty capitalist dollars to pay for this article.

  3. Their support base is mainly people who chose the wrong major in college or have learning disabilities. They then graduate with a useless degree and are somehow surprised that they then enter the working poor arena making small wages. The solution to their problems they feel is to politically try to get their wages increased. Flocking to Seattle in the droves and great that our minimum wage will be so high but it just attracts more and more of them.

    • You’re assessment is incorrect, but doesn’t seem as if there’s much room here to discuss this with you.

      Irrelevant to the topic of Socialist Alternative, I’m concerned with your derogatory reference to people with learning disabilities. You have a problem with people who have learning disabilities? You don’t think they deserve a living wage?

      • ^^^Case in point, the capitalist class (e.g. JMB here) doesn’t think that people with learning disabilities deserve the opportunity to achieve any kind of economic independence.

        You’re the quintessential reason why we need more socialists like Sawant. Thanks for making my point for me.

      • Have fun forming your socialist utopia…we job creators have no problem moving somewhere else.

        How will you make $15 an hour when there are no people left to pay it.

        Lets say hello to a future Detroit here in Seattle.

      • “Capitalist class”

        Interesting, as I neither own any means of production nor do I have employees. I guess I am just a worker like anyone else.

        I think the point was that anyone who still believes in the myth of Marxism, which has resulted in massive death and failure every time it is attempted, must be mentally disabled.

        As for “economic independence” I thought you were a socialist comrade and thus want everyone to be dependent on the all powerful central states.

  4. Curious if there has been any polling showing Sawant is the front runner, as you described her. Her supportèrs are definitely apparent, and undeniable, but has the front runner label any statistical support?

    • “‘I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.”

      ~New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael

      • Well, that is a shame. So what basis for the proposition that the Council member is the front runner? The author of the article states that as fact without any real support. Unless you count fundraising…

  5. Sawant is the worst choice for city council. Especially under the new model of district representation. She will isolate Capitol Hill and the central district from the other districts and will essentially leave us without representation on the council. I’m as left as can be but her ideas and methods only serve her own obsession with celebrity status. They don’t serve the common good. I won’t tell anyone how to vote but please consider voting for anyone but her!

      • You made a previous comment about trolling.

        I believe this is exactly what you are doing here.

        News flash: not everybody likes you little Sawant.

      • Oh John, I totally am. I don’t see any other way/option to respond to some of these absolutely specious assertions and spurious analogies. It’s fear mongering propaganda and is not much worse than the comment section from Fox News.

        If you want to seriously discuss something, please put forward legit questions, concerns or positions (rooted in fact, not fear). I’ve addressed a legit concern below re: rent control and Massachusetts. We can discuss other things in depth if you like (e.g. the actual body count from the October Revolution, quasi-socialist uprisings that turned into totalitarian regimes from Vietnam to Chile, rent control, the minimum wage increase, unions, whatever). Or, we can troll each other, which I’m perfectly happy (and good) at doing.

      • *yawn*

        The tired trope of “real socialism has not been tried yet.”

        I guess we will just have to keep filling mass graves until someone finally gets it right.

      • Tired tropes? Mass graves? All those things endemic to socialists and egalitarian experiments. Yeah, I’ll buy that.

      • Rent control worked in Cambridge and Boston prior to their statewide ban. Vacancy rates and diversity worsened when it was abolished, and obviously, displaced thousands of residents through skyrocketting deregulated rents.

        The MA ban wasn’t enacted out of necessity, rather, like WA state, a strong and heavily funded landlord/developer lobby. If you like the rich dictating where poor and middle class families can and can’t live, by all means, fight rent control.

      • You mean besides the entirety of the Eastern Bloc? Or Large parts of Western Europe? Or Signapore, HongKong,Dubai, Philippines, Pakistan, Tunisia, India, Taiwan, Luxembourg, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Syria, Costa Rica, Canada, and so on?

        But yeah, the only places that have ever tried rent control are New York and San Franciso.

        I was really looking for questions about the organization, given the nature of this post.

      • Have you actually seen Eastern Bloc controlled housing? That’s not exactly a model example. Same with most state housing in Europe. If y’all think Capitol Hill’s new buildings are bad, yikes.

        Also, LOL on Dubai. Guess we’ll just need to have millions in oil reserves to freely spend… somehow that seems incompatible with SA. (I.e., you need a funding source for quality state-run controlled housing.)

      • The US does have billions of dollars of oil reserves as the 3rd largest producer of oil. That is an interesting idea you posit, creating a resource wealth fund like Norway’s to pay for good quality housing for all Americans.

      • Until we lower our oil needs by a significant amount—and that’s not just personal use for vehicles, it’s mostly for power production—it’s unlikely we’d want to risk the reserves of a theoretically finite resource.

      • “Eastern Bloc, Philippines, Pakistan, Tunisia, India, Taiwan, Luxembourg, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Syria, Costa Rica”

        Definitely some first class accommodations right there.

        I can’t wait to join in the egalitarian dream of the nations listed.

    • Sawant Stinks!

      I feel sorry for the other council members that have to spend time in the same room with her. Dealing with that level of stench deserves hazard pay.

    • I have a question!

      Where do you get off stealing the rightfully earned money of others?

      How many other people need to die in the name of socialism twisted morality?

      When has socialism ever worked being that it is based on a the principle of egalitarianism that simply does not exist.

      • I’m not a capitalist, just a worker living in a country which was created by murdering the native inhabitants and stealing their land.

        Unfortunately the ideology of capitalism makes invisible the billions of deaths it perpetuates, unless you think folks want to die of war, death and disease.

      • You are welcome to give everything you have back to the natives.

        But as a socialist you would rather use past grievances that are not connected to you to pick someone else’s pocket

      • You asked for questions, and respond by sending the question right back?

        Well, OK. How about Canada? It takes a mostly capitalistic system and adds full single-pay healthcare and a wee-bit more financial controls.

        Switzerland is a pretty nice mix of capitalism and social programs; lord knows they wouldn’t go for state owned banking, though. Can’t hide that Nazi money as easily.

        The Nordic countries have interesting mixes of social programs and capitalistic economies. Take your pick of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, whatever.

        It’s hard to say if any of those systems would scale to the size of the US, though. 320 million people is a wee-bit different than 8 million Swiss.

      • Um, Canada, the Nordic Countries, Switzerland, well, that’s not exactly what the Socialist Alternative is proposing. SA says: “Take into public ownership the top 500 corporations and banks that dominate the U.S. economy and run them under the democratic management of elected representatives of the workers and the broader public. Compensation to be paid on the basis of proven need to small investors, not millionaires.”!!!

        This ain’t your Western European social-democratic agenda. This is some dyed in the wool really nutty leftism. On the SA website you’ll find, for example,a piece about how great Lenin was.

        So what do they mean by “democratic” control? Apparently, that choice invention of Lenin called “democratic centralism” where the party selects the people’s leaders, because you know, the people don’t usually choose socialists, or if they do, not for very long.

        I for one am a big proponent of social democracy, something very different than Leninist Socialism. Read Lenin’s rather ugly work “What is to be done?” to hear about the difference from the horse’s mouth. And remember, SA thinks Leninism is great!

      • @le.gai.savant

        Er, yeah. I was responding to the original poster’s dodge. The poster asked for governments the US could work toward.

        There must be working economies and systems that are the basis of SA’s ideology, or is it all theoretical and they want to experiment on a country of 320 million people.

        (Of course I know the answer.)

        It’s possible it could be a utopia, or it’s possible it would destroy the world’s biggest economy, cause massive death via starvation, war, and other fun things, and probably take down the entire globe.

        But at least my rent won’t be too high, forcing me to move to a cheaper neighborhood to sustain my current lifestyle!

      • I agree that those western countries which have embrace a stronger social democratic tradition provide a more decent life to their average citizen, though I will not that only an idealist would ignore the massive problems these countries are experiencing. One only has to look to the rise of right wing parties in the countries you mentioned to see that people have become disillusioned with their labor and ‘socialist’ parties. I have some highfalutin analysis of the underlying issues with these countries political economy, mostly centered on the failure of the post 1970 worker’s movements to secure greater prosperity and the inability of capitalist firms to increase their rates of return on investments within the social-democratic model.

        I think to ask me in 2015 what country I’d like the US to emulate is to ask a believer in democracy to ask which country in 1850 provides the best model of a future society- dickensonian England, slave-expanding America, bloody France, etc.

        Capitalism had hundreds of years to refine its governmental model, and I would posit that even it’s staunchest defenders would be hard-pressed to not come up with ways that it could improve, yourself included. Over those 300 or so years many states rose and fell. I would posit that socialism experiences the same issues, but being only 150 years old we are still seeing its birth, from the months long Paris Commune to the years long Spanish Republic to the <100 year Soviet Union, those of us who see the need for revolutionary change in how goods and services get organized(with Global Warming presenting the greatest existential threat to capitalism yet) understand that this project has barely begun.

    • I’m curious why there’s no mention of Trotskyism in this article. Instead, SA refers to itself as a democratic socialist organization, a term more familiar in social-democratic circles.

      Does this represent a change in political orientation?

      • Thank you for a serious question! I would agree that the term “democratic socialist” has more traction in other leftist traditions, such as social democracy or non-revolutionary/vangardist parties like the Democratic Socialists of America. Personally I think of “Democratic Socialism” as a term which organizations use to emphasis the expansion of the democratic project which socialism would provide. Socialist alternative is pretty orthodox in it’s Trotskyism, in that we practice democratic centralism as our organizational model. In my time as an activist I have found it to be a very strong organizational tool. Beyond that you can find our vangardism in our call for a new worker’s party which rejects all corporate influences or our internationalism in our association with an International, the Committee for a Workers’ International.

        If there has been a change it has been noticing in a post-occupy world that people are more willing to take leftist programs seriously, and thus a shift towards engaging electoral politics.

        I would love to get into more specifics if you are interested, your user name and question suggests to me that you are a fellow leftist.

  6. The SA platform is a mix of typical progressivism that most people can support (“equal rights for all!”, “sustainability!”, “buzzwords!”, “derp!”) and batshit what-the-fuckery.

    “Stop home foreclosures and evictions. For public ownership and democratic control of the major banks.”

    OK, so banks do suck. But “Stop home foreclosures and evictions.” Presumably this public ownership bank would screen the buyer in some way; if they stop paying for their loan, does this bank just say, “OK. Cool?” In which case, why would the public who is paying for their house be expected to pay for those who just don’t feel like paying?

    “No more layoffs! Take bankrupt and failing companies into public ownership and retool them for socially necessary green production.”

    So my failed restaurant will start producing solar panels?

    “For a mass workers’ party drawing together workers, young people and activists from workplace, community, civil rights, environmental and antiwar campaigns, to provide a fighting, political alternative to the pro-big business parties.”

    ” For democratic unions run by the rank-and-file to fight for better pay, working conditions, and social services. Full-time union officials should be regularly elected and receive the average wage of those they represent.”

    “Take into public ownership the top 500 corporations and banks that dominate the U.S. economy and run them under the democratic management of elected representatives of the workers and the broader public. Compensation to be paid on the basis of proven need to small investors, not millionaires.”

    These seem weirdly at odds. If SA is in charge, why would unions even be necessary? You can’t fight for compensation if compensation is paid on the basis of “proven need to small investors,” whatever that means.

    There’s no economic analysis here on how single-payer healthcare will be paid for, to use one example. It seems like the tax rate, by necessity, would be high. Which is fine and dandy, but it’s also a system intended to reduce and redistribute wealth, which will further reduce the tax base unless everyone is propped up to the same high tax rate. Which seems unlikely, because those in need of being propped up probably aren’t going to go from $15/hour to $250K year.

    What’s the admittedly selfish personal reward for excellence? This was always a fundamental problem with other socialist systems in China and Russia. Significant numbers of people just didn’t do squat when they were guaranteed a certain base level of comfort, even when that base level was pretty shitty.

  7. The SA party must not have many members, if all they collected in dues in 2012 was $140,000. And it might not directly raise funds for Sawant, but the event in NYC last spring was co-sponsored by SA, and it raised a significant amount of cash.

    I too question that Sawant is the “frontrunner.” Maybe it’s because of the huge number of posters she has put up and littered our streets with. I think Pamela Banks will do well in the primary and will be a serious opponent (and hopefully the winner) in District 3.

    • I don’t understand why Pamela Banks is running in District 3 instead of for one of the at-large seats. She seems to be the sort of liberal-Democrat consensus-builder most Seattleites love, but she’s aiming to replace the council’s most progressive, hard-working and effective member (I say this even though I agree that some of SA’s rhetoric is a bit over the top). I suspect Banks’ big-money, in-your-face advertising campaign is going to backfire on her in this district. People are too media-savvy here to be swayed by slick TV ads and Poster Giant saturation blitzes.

  8. Let’s hope that her status as ‘front runner’ is just a fallacy – most of her ideas are half-baked rhetoric with no plans behind them. Like rent control – it appeals to the common theme that no one would like to actually pay *more* for rent – but they have no real plans, studies, or statistics to back whatever empty ‘plan’ they’ve half-baked up.

  9. For anyone who may be interested, the website zero hedge has an interesting write-up and video on the success of socialism in Venezuela. Coming to a country near you when our dollar loses its reserve currency status.

    • Venezuela is a success? First, its success was initially fueled (derp) by oil.

      Second, it’s gone completely tits-up now that oil prices have dropped, and its costs have shot through the roof.

      From Wikipedia:

      “Beginning in February 2014, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have protested over high levels of criminal violence, inflation, and chronic scarcity of basic goods due to policies of the federal government:”

      Hugo Chavez also liked to kill and imprison those who criticized him.

      So yeah, using Venezuela as a model is… not so hot. Short term, it can be fantastic. But you need so much revenue to sustain a purely socialist state that its collapse is inevitable.

  10. What I hate, is that the Sawant crowd throws around the term socialist when, in fact, they seem to mean marxist. Most younger Americans probably see the word socialism in its modern context and think Sweden, or Denmark (like I do)…and cool things like free higher education, universal healthcare, neatly manicured parks, subsidized child care, great public transportation, ubiquitous bike lanes, and great pop songs (okay, that last on was a stretch). Anyway, I’m more than willing to pay high taxes for these things, but I don’t want to revisit some sort of failed utopian dream of a centrally planned economy. Capitalism has to be closely monitored since it can easily run amok, but as a pragmatist, I see no other way to preserve innovation and non-misery for the vast majority (and the world post industrial age has pretty much shown this to be true).

    If they mean Marxist, say Marxist instead of camouflaging these ideas under the banner of progressive, democratic, ABBA sounding socialism.

    • I have been thinking exactly the same thing, though instead of “Marxist” I’ve been thinking “communist”. I confess I’m not an expert in Political Science, so maybe Marxist and communist aren’t sufficiently alike to be used interchangeably, maybe they are. Socialist Alternative may call themselves “socialist” till the cows come home– but they know their support would plummet if we called it like it is. They’re not just “socialist”, they’re communist, Marxist, whatever.