SCC Insight has obtained a collection of internal documents from Socialist Alternative that were written over the past three years. Those documents provide a unique view into the organization’s internal — and sometimes acrimonious — debates on a wide range of topics, including Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the Democratic Party, Donald Trump, the Black Lives Matter movement, its own organizational structure, and Seattle politics. But they also reveal the extent to which Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a leading member of the organization, has handed over her Council responsibilities to Socialist Alternative – including deciding how to vote on items before the Council, and even the hiring and firing of government employees working in her office in City Hall. Beyond the fact that she has never disclosed to her constituents in District 3 that she has ceded these duties to Socialist Alternative, having done so likely violates several provisions of the city’s Ethics Code for government officials.
I strongly encourage you to read the entire article below, to help you understand the context behind the Socialist Alternative documents. But if you really don’t have the time or the patience for that, here’s the tl;dr version of this article. Or, just skip down to the discussion of the most problematic aspects of Councilmember Sawant’s relationship with Socialist Alternative.
As reported previously, Socialist Alternative is a closed-membership, dues-paying organization, requiring prospective members to pass an interview before being allowed in to ensure that they are in agreement with the organization’s political beliefs. Members are expected to pay 5-10% of their wages to Socialist Alternative in dues (ref. pages 6-7) and are asked to sell copies of the organization’s newspaper (ref. p. 9). It is not registered as a political party; at one time it was registered as a 501(c)(4) political nonprofit, but after several years of failing to file the required financial disclosures, the IRS revoked its 501(c)(4) status. The organization doesn’t publish information on its leadership, nor does it disclose any information on its finances. Through Council member Sawant’s required financial disclosure as a public official, we know that she has close financial ties with Socialist Alternative: she makes donations from her “solidarity fund” to the organization each year, slightly more than the 10% of her salary she would be expected to pay as a member; Socialist Alternative also employs her husband, Calvin Priest, and sometimes pays travel expenses for both Sawant and Priest.
As of the end of 2017, Socialist Alternative had about 1000 members nationwide; 200 of those are in Seattle (ref. paragraph 68). While that reflects substantial growth in recent years, it pales in comparison to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which leveraged the popularity of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to catapult to 50,000 members as of September 2018.
Socialist Alternative styles itself as adhering to strict Marxist principles. As such it is a “revolutionary” organization dedicated to the dismantling of the capitalist state. It believes that it is impossible to reform a capitalist state from within; it must be completely dismantled and replaced with a new economy and government. That view extends to the entire apparatus of the capitalist state, including for example the police: while not a police abolitionist, Socialist Alternative nevertheless believes that existing police departments must be dissolved and replaced once a socialist state is established. Contrast this with the DSA, which it views as “reformist,” attempting to evolve the existing capitalist state from within using socialist principles rather than replace it wholesale. For this reason, Socialist Alternative is of decidedly mixed feelings about the DSA and Bernie Sanders: while it is happy to see more people attracted to socialism, it has little faith that the DSA will accomplish any real reform. But the organization reserves its greatest scorn for the Democratic Party, which it derides as corporate tools of the capitalist state. This view is reflected in Sawant’s recent letter to newly-elected democratic socialists Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Julia Salazar:
“Finally, we must recognize that while we agree on many things there is a fundamental difference between Marxism and social democratic politics. Socialist Alternative and I are fighting for a socialist world and recognize capitalism cannot be made to work for the working class. Social democrats hope to create a humane capitalism – a futile mission and fundamental error.
We also believe we need a new party for working people, independent of corporate money and the ruling class and we do not agree with your decisions to run as Democrats.”
Socialist Alternative self-governs through “democratic centralism,” a time-honored principle in Marxist organizations dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. It boils down to two rules: all institutional bodies are elected by party members (the “democratic” part), and all decisions of those bodies are binding on all of their party members and any subsidiary organizations (the “centralism” part). Party members elect party committees for specific geographic areas; those party committees have two responsibilities:
- Debate and decide policy decisions (much like a legislative branch would);
- Elect a smaller “executive committee” to make day-to-day decisions and implement the policy decisions of the party committee.
There are natural tensions in this model that are the subject of ongoing debate within the organization as it grows. A party committee can worry that its executive committee is making decisions that should be the subject of wider policy debate, while executive committees can chafe at a party committee that micromanages day-to-day decisions. Branch and city committees likewise can resent edicts from above that seem tone-deaf to local conditions.
Socialist Alternative is a national organization, with a national party committee (the “NC”) and executive committee (the “EC”). It has branches in several US cities with their own Branch Committees. Seattle is a special case, however, because of its size: it has its own City Committee (“CC”) and Seattle Executive Committee (“SEC”), and ten branch committees for specific neighborhoods such as the U District. Members’ dues and donations, and subscriptions to their monthly newspaper, pay the salaries of several full-time staff (“full timers”) who carry out much of the work of the organization’s committees. Socialist Alternative also has an international parent organization: the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), which has its own International Secretariat (“IS”) and International Executive Committee (“IEC”).
Council member Sawant’s City Council office is a highly visible anomaly in this governance structure. It is not a committee, it is not elected by either party members or another committee, and its staff are paid by the City of Seattle, not by Socialist Alternative. That raises interesting questions about how it fits into the structure and philosophy of “democratic centralism.” Yet it is a source of great power for the organization as a political platform, one which they have leveraged extensively. Indeed, there is wide recognition within Socialist Alternative that Sawant’s position and office are their most valuable asset, a “stronghold in enemy territory.” They are very possessive over it, repeatedly referring to it in their documents as “our Council office.” As such, they recognize that mobilizing to get Sawant re-elected in 2019 is a top priority for the organization, one they are committed to (ref. para 31).
“Our victory in winning a city council seat in Seattle was a historic achievement for SA and the CWI. The entire organization is deeply committed to defending this conquest and waging a fierce struggle to reelect our public representative in 2019.”
Despite their common objectives, there are several topics of active debate within the organization, including:
- Increasing membership vs. building cadre. Socialist Alternative knows that it wants to grow – but only if it can keep the organization true to its strict Marxist principles. To do that, they need to build “cadre” – a core of leaders deeply immersed in the key teachings of Marxism who can lead and educate new, “low consciousness” members to ensure ideological consistency among the membership base. The organization can’t scale up faster than their cadre allows it to — and it recognizes that limit (ref. pages 32-33). But that could make it challenging for it to stand by and watch DSA’s explosive growth. Socialist Alternative could fade into irrelevance as the tiny, revolutionary sister to the large, reformist DSA.
- Propaganda vs. “principled mass action.” Revolutionary Marxist organizations have two primary activities: writing and publishing propaganda advancing their political positions; and organizing workers into movements that will protest, disrupt and ultimately overthrow the capitalist state. They must do both, but deciding how much of their energy and resources are devoted to each is a tricky balance. Finding that balance also implicates the power balance within the organization, since formulating and adopting policy and propaganda is the realm of the party committees, while the operational challenges of organizing mass action requires an executive committee. To be clear: I am not using the term “propaganda” here in a pejorative sense, though it is a word that has gained strong negative connotations over the years. Socialist Alternative describes its own work and writings as “propaganda,” in the sense closest to its definition: ideas, facts or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause.
- How much to support and work with DSA. Socialist Alternative acknowledges that there is a Marxist left-wing within the DSA that holds views similar to their own organization’s, but based on the history of other emerging socialist organizations around the globe the Socialist Alternative EC does not believe that the DSA’s “is capable of educating the DSA in Marxism and genuine internationalism” (and they seem to have been proven right). They think that their relationships with the DSA’s left contingent are useful “insofar as they give us access to DSA’s fresher layers who are moving into struggle. The key relationships with DSA members will be built through local collaboration on issues in which we can set the political tone of the actions, meetings or campaigns taking place… Surface and impressionistic analysis of DSA will not be adequate for giving our members the capacity to intervene in their debates. We do not want to be seen as simply the ‘advisors’ to the group… Instead, we need to train our members to use united front methods of work and put forward the CWI’s politics in the process of collaboration with DSA in anti-Trump struggles and beyond.” And yet they recognize the existential threat that the DSA represents to their own organization: recently a group of Socialist Alternative members in Tennessee defected to DSA. Socialist Alternative has repeatedly called for the DSA to join it in creating a new Socialist Party in the United States.
- Opportunism vs. strict adherence to Marxist principles. Revolutionary Marxist organizations are always on guard against short-term “opportunist” goals that could distract them from bigger political goals. Again, this is a source of tension between a party committee and its executive committee, since the EC is tasked with day-to-day operations. The big, looming opportunist threat to Socialist Alternative is also their biggest asset: Sawant’s Council seat and the importance of getting her re-elected in 2019. This issue has provoked an ongoing debate around where to compromise or make concessions in order to enlist the support of what Sawant refers to as Seattle’s “Katie Wilson-dominated liberal activist layer,” and other potential allies such as Black Lives Matter. To quote from one position paper on the issue:
“The pressure that we feel is not from Mayor Durkan or the conservative establishment; it is from progressive sections of the middle and working class in Seattle. Broader layers of activists and progressive workers and youth have a very strong pragmatic outlook, considering any step “in the right direction” to be worth actively supporting. This means that when we have an elected council seat, we feel an immense pressure due to this mood among our own progressive base... A common way this manifests itself today for us in Seattle is grassroots pressure from progressive or radicalizing layers who are genuinely pushing for change and want us to make compromises in order to govern effectively. Many of these people believe the choice is between a “progressive who gets things done” and a dogmatic purist who remains loyal to principles but is ineffective at achieving any real reforms. It is inevitable that we face such pressures as we work alongside people moving into struggle who have pragmatic and reformist attitudes... We must be able to stand against these pressures, while adopting a skillful approach that takes into account this consciousness. We do this in how we argue our position, how we frame things, the reforms we support even though we know they are limited, and making united front-type appeals to left-wing Democrats and middle-class forces... We also can feel opportunist pressures to adapt to the dominant and popular ideas of those who are moving into struggle, such as the strong identity politics in BLM and #MeToo, or syndicalist moods among union activists... But the far bigger danger for left-wing politicians, like AOC, Bernie Sanders, and Marxist representatives, is not corruption from above, but the far more pernicious and powerful pressure of public opinion from below. The biggest source of opportunist pressure at this time flows from the confusion and low level of consciousness amongst the working class and the oppressed. Even the most sincere and dedicated Marxist representatives will come under pressure at key moments to avoid taking principled stances which isolate them.”
They also discuss this in terms of the pressures on elected officials, and specifically on Sawant: “Any time Marxists win a mass position there are opportunist pressures to de-prioritize the building of a revolutionary organization and dilute our Marxist politics. How we deal with these challenges with our first elected representative is establishing a foundation for how we deal with much bigger pressures when we have many elected officials and union leaders across the country.”
- How to maximize the leverage of Sawant’s position. Maximizing its leverage means coordinating the activities of Sawant and her Council office with those of Seattle’s other committees and the national and international organization, but that directly raises the question of who, under “democratic centralism,” dictates the shared priorities across the relevant committees within Socialist Alternative and Sawant’s City Council office. Is the Seattle City Committee, the National Committee, or CWI’s International Secretariat in charge? And equally important, how do Sawant and the Council office balance their responsibilities to District 3 with their responsibilities to the organization? On that question, Socialist Alternative’s leadership is very clear: Sawant and the Council office must be wholly accountable to Socialist Alternative. As one SA member writes:
“This important democratic tradition is reflected in the resolutions of the first four Congresses of the Communist International, which the CWI bases itself on. One key resolution was the ‘Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism ,‘ which explains, ‘Communist members of parliament must subordinate all parliamentary action to the activity of their Party outside parliament… The organization of the parliamentary faction must be completely in the hands of the Central Committee of the Communist Parties.'”
And here is where things get troublesome. In response to questions as to whether Sawant has been appropriately accountable and accusations that her Council office has worked too independently from (and occasionally at cross-purposes with) other parts of the Seattle arm of Socialist Alternative, Sawant has insisted that she is accountable to the organization’s Seattle Executive Committee:
“I completely reject the idea that the Council Office is failing – in any way – to communicate to the SEC, or to be accountable to the SEC and the organization. As SEC comrades should be able to admit, Council comrades take great pains to include and consult the full SEC. We err on the side of taking political questions to the SEC. There have been many instances when I have personally insisted that Council comrades send advance notice to the SEC to make all leading members aware of a given political situation.”US Doc 4 letter from KS to EC
Subsequent to that letter, in December 2017, the National Committee and International Executive Committee both approved a resolution confirming that Sawant has indeed demonstrated an appropriate level of accountability to the organization, and declaring that “the running and staffing of KS’s office in Seattle be agreed by the national EC of the organisation in consultation with KS.”Doc 04 IEC-NC resolution
In practice, Sawant’s accountability to Socialist Alternative means that she has handed over significant decision-making to the organization — including how she votes on business that comes before the City Council, and the hiring and firing of government-payroll staff in her office.
Recently, the EC decided that Sawant would vote “yes” on the confirmation of Carmen Best as the city’s new Chief of Police. This was controversial among Socialist Alternative members, since it violates their principle against lending support to a police apparatus within a capitalist state. There was vocal opposition from a minority group that claimed it was an “opportunist” move to help shore up support for Sawant’s re-election next year, and (ironically) complained that the organization should have held open, democratic debate on the issue within the membership ranks. In response, the EC was forced to issue its own statement describing why it voted to direct Sawant to vote “yes.” That statement admits that it violates their Marxist principles, but claims that it was necessary to stand in solidarity with black community leaders who fought hard to have Best reinstated as a finalist for consideration. It also explains that they required Sawant to deliver a speech outlining their reasoning — which is exactly what she did. From the EC’s statement:
As it became clear in the last week that no public support existed for a “no” vote, on Saturday the EC met to take a final decision. We agreed that however Kshama voted on Monday there would be widespread confusion over what it represented, but that a “yes” vote will likely do less damage to our longer-term ability to win over the black working class (and beyond) to our ideas than a “no” vote would. Given that we are not in a position to elect the outcome (all other eight council members will be voting “yes”), then the central question is how Kshama’s vote and speech will be interpreted, and how it will prepare the ground for winning over wider layers to our program in the future. The vote would be combined with a clear speech from Kshama skillfully outlining our disagreements with Best, warning that her lack of commitment to serious reforms (much less a socialist program) means that new racist police killings are inevitable, and that only a movement from below will achieve the changes demanded by the community. We will explain our “yes” vote by referencing the racist process led by the Mayor behind closed doors that initially passed over Best, and the broad community outcry against it, and that despite our warnings we will not stand in the way of the democratic will of the wider movement including important sections of the more conscious black working class. We will point toward the need for a unified movement demanding accountability and fundamental changes in police policy.Understanding our Vote on Carmen Best - EC Leter to NC and BC
Socialist Alternative’s control over staffing in Sawant’s office is also problematic. In December 2017, after the CWI IEC and the Socialist Alternative NC both decided that the national EC had decision-making authority over “the running and staffing” of Sawant’s office, the EC voted to fire Whitney James Kahn, a Socialist Alternative member who had worked in Sawant’s office since May 2016 — on the city payroll. Kahn protested the firing within Socialist Alternative, claiming it was political retaliation for voicing dissenting views from the majority of the organization’s leadership. The EC admitted that it voted to fire Kahn but disputes the reasoning, saying it was related to making room for other “full-timer” staff who had been on assignment in other cities and based on a proposal to the EC from Adam Ziemkowski, another Socialist Alternative member who “manages the Council office” and is also on the city payroll. Kahn’s supporters in the “minority group” in turn dispute the EC’s narrative. One of those supporters, Rebekah Liebermann, also worked in Sawant’s office, but the minority group (including Liebermann and Kahn) claimed that she was forced to resign earlier this year because of “fierce political retaliation” (ref. paragraph 18).Doc 17 Letter from EC to NC
Accusations of political retaliation aside, the fact that an outside organization — let alone a small, secretive, restricted-membership one — is running Sawant’s office, hiring and firing people, and controlling her Council vote strikes at the heart of the legitimacy of the City Council. It also represents multiple violations of the city’s Ethics Code, including:
- using an official position for other than the benefit of the city (ref 4.16.070.B.1);
- using city personnel for a purpose other than a city purpose (ref 4.16.070.B.2);
- assisting any person in a matter involving the employee’s department (ref. 4.16.070.B.3);
Worse, they have carefully orchestrated the means to avoid public scrutiny. Sawant’s office does not use city-provided email accounts; they use gmail accounts instead. They argue this is to allow them to use Google’s online collaboration tools, and they claim to support public document requests on emails in those accounts. However the latter claim is clearly untrue: a Public Document Request filed related to the termination of employment of Liebermann and Kahn returned no documents or emails from Sawant and her office — nothing at all. This is despite Socialist Alternative’s own internal documents showing that they have collections of documents on Liebermann’s and Kahn’s terminations — directly related to Council official business — that Ziemkowski and Sawant would have received and almost certainly contributed to, given that by their own admission Ziemkowski brought the proposal to fire Kahn to the EC. (ref. pages 5, 11 and 12).
It may be that some of them are confidential personnel documents also held by the City of Seattle’s HR department (and exempt from public document requests); but if that is the case, then Sawant and her office have violated the city’s ethics code by disclosing confidential information to an outside party (ref. 4.16.070.D.1). Otherwise, it is a violation of the state’s Public Records Act for Sawant and Ziemkowski not to disclose documents and communications prepared, owned, used or retained in the conduct of city business — and firing a city employee is clearly city business..
The fact that Sawant has financial entanglements with Socialist Alternative (recall it employs her husband and pays for their travel expenses) creates one more ethics violation, since she receives something of value in a relationship where she is letting Socialist Alternative control her actions as a Council member (ref. 4.16.070.C.1).Sawant F1 2018
You may be asking, “Is this really different from the way the Democratic or Republican Party works?” It is substantially different in two important ways:
- While members of a political party in a given legislative body self-organize to form a caucus to maximize the impact of their votes, neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party are themselves a caucus and they don’t dictate how elected officials will vote. Further, Democratic and Republican elected officials don’t pledge their accountability to the caucus or the party (if they did, there would be no need for a Democratic or Republican Whip), and some frequently split from their party’s caucus on particular issues important to their constituents. The parties also don’t run the offices of elected officials and hire and fire their staff. Voters expect their elected officials to be accountable to constituents, not to a private organization (political party or otherwise), and to make their own decisions.
- The Democratic and Republican Parties are registered at both the federal and state level as political parties. As such, they disclose their leadership and make regular financial disclosures. Also, anyone can join the Republican or Democratic Party; there is no required financial contribution, and no interview required in which one’s ideology is tested before being accepted as a party member. None of that is true for Socialist Alternative.
Council member Sawant declined a request to interview her for this article.
Members of the former Socialist Alternative “minority” group that have since split off to form their own new socialist party also declined to be interviewed for this article. They did, however, provide a statement:
“Despite disagreements we had with the majority of Socialist Alternative over how best to build the socialist movement, we remain absolutely convinced that Kshama Sawant has been a necessary and tireless voice for working people on the Seattle City Council. We will be fighting alongside the other socialist and progressive forces in Seattle to make sure Kshama Sawant is re-elected in 2019 as part of a resurgent socialist movement across the country.”
Rebekah Harris Liebermann on behalf of the former minority in Socialist Alternative