If Deng Xiaoping could Capture China’s Communist Party, You Can Capture the Democratic Party

by Benjamin Studebaker

There is a part of the left which believes the Democratic Party is beyond hope. They think it’s too corrupt, too beholden to rich people and corporations, and that it’s a waste of time and energy to try to change it. Even in articles which express support for running progressive and democratic socialist candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line, concessions are routinely made to this faction. Jacobin recently ran an interview with Seth Ackerman, in which Ackerman advises the left to run candidates as Democrats, provided those candidates are beholden to outside activist groups. But even this piece is far too pessimistic about the prospects for penetrating the Democratic Party. Right at the start, it begins with a left-wing shibboleth–that the Democratic Party has a “conservatising force field” which necessarily assimilates into the borg all efforts to change it. This is really wrong and it’s shockingly easy to show why.

Both the Soviet Union and Maoist China were one party communist states. Other parties were not allowed to participate in their political systems, and public dissenters could expect to be incarcerated, reeducated, or killed. Ackerman points out that the American political system has many impediments to forming new political parties, and this is true. But of course, the Soviets and the Maoists had far greater impediments to party competition than we could ever imagine having in America. Second parties stood no chance of getting off the ground, let alone third parties.

Despite this, both of these parties eventually fell into the hands of reformers. In the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s moderate faction sought political reform. In China, Deng Xiaoping’s liberal faction sought economic reform. Both of these efforts eventually succeeded, with Gorbachev’s political reforms contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Deng’s economic reforms contributing to the survival of China as a one-party state.

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How did these changes happen? There were no primaries in China or the Soviet Union. You got promoted up the ranks of the party if those in charge thought you were deserving. This meant that climbing the ranks depended entirely on your ability to impress deeply corrupt party bosses who were committed to the survival of the communist one-party states. Despite this, both the Chinese and Soviet parties were infiltrated by reformers, and those reformers eventually reached the highest echelons of power.

This happened despite an acute awareness on the part of the Soviet and Chinese leadership that there were “reactionary” elements within their parties. Because China and the Soviet Union did not permit the opposition to openly form opposition parties, they were never entirely sure how large this opposition was, and because they reacted to explicit opposition with severe repression, opponents would hide in plain sight, reciting party dogmas they did not really believe. The more the opposition tried to hide, the more aggressive the Chinese and Soviet communist parties became in attempting to root it out. Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution, aimed at identifying and drumming out hidden reactionaries. The number of alleged dissidents killed is staggering. The lowest estimates put the figure at 400,000. The highest put it at 10 million. The number prosecuted? As high as 36 million.

It was a horrific policy, and it didn’t even achieve its purpose. Despite the inability to found a competing party and despite a Chinese government which was actually trying to incarcerate, expel, or kill reformers, Deng Xiaoping took the Chinese state within two years of Mao’s death and utterly transformed its economic system. Many surviving reformers who had been purged from the party ranks were rehabilitated. Mao would have been appalled.

The Democratic Party does not systematically kill progressives and democratic socialists. It hasn’t recruited gangs of youths to identify Bernie Sanders supporters and beat the snot out of them. Not only does the Democratic Party not do those things, it has a party structure which is almost perfectly designed to facilitate infiltration. After the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention, the party became in hock to primaries. If you can win Democratic primaries, the party bosses can’t stop you from getting on the ballot. The infamous “superdelegates” only control 1/6th of the vote at the presidential level–they have no role in downballot races, and if they did use their power to block a Democratic nominee who commanded a strong majority, the move would look terrible and illegitimate.

The Democratic Party elites possess none of the tools which the Soviet and Chinese party leaders used to maintain control of their parties, and even with those tools the Soviet and Chinese party leaders failed utterly to retain control. So why is the Democratic Party still in their hands? I see three reasons:

  1. Progressives and democratic socialists have embraced pessimism about capturing the Democratic Party as a shibboleth–you aren’t really left-wing unless you don’t believe in it. Many of them refuse to even try to do it. This is why it’s taken two years since Bernie Sanders’ run for president (and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in New York) for many people on the left to even begin debating the point. And still we have to read lines in Jacobin that the Democratic Party contains a “conservatising force field”.
  2. We are just now beginning to come out of an era in which most Americans consumed TV news and the ability to pay for TV ads was crucial for campaigns. This made them much more expensive and that made it much more difficult for left-wing insurgents to fund their campaigns during lulls in organising. Today, the internet increasingly makes it cheaper both to drive interest in campaigns and to spread video messages to mass audiences during those campaigns.
  3. Party capture doesn’t really become possible until large portions of the party base lose all faith in the party establishment. Barack Obama mostly retained the loyalty of rank and file Democratic voters, despite nearly two decades of stagnation in household incomes. Hillary Clinton did not, and no establishment Democrat has arrived on the scene to restore confidence in the party elite. Bernie Sanders has created a crisis of confidence in the Democratic Party leadership, one which remains unresolved. In the Soviet Union and Maoist China, it was so obvious that the parties were performing poorly that infiltration by reformers was inevitable and unstoppable. Today, the Democratic Party faces a similar crisis. It’s not 2012 anymore.

The Democratic Party can be captured and transformed through the primary system, and it’s time more people explicitly and unapologetically say so. The left has underutilised the 2018 election cycle because too many people don’t yet understand this. We could have Sanders-style primary challengers in many more races in 2020 if, you know, folks would actually try. We don’t need to reform the electoral system, we don’t need an American Labour Party, we don’t even need campaign finance reform (though of course it would be nice)–we just need people to run for stuff and support those who do.