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Marxism or Messaging? Lessons From Seattle's Socialist City Council Member

Kshama Sawant, who just left office, became famous nationally for her fights for workers' rights. But her party had no one to replace her and the council became more conservative in last year's elections.

Kshama Sawant calls for taxing large corporations to fund housing
After the so-called Amazon head tax was repealed, Sawant unveiled a fresh payroll tax proposal on Seattle's largest companies in 2020.
(Seattle City Council)
After serving as a Seattle council member for a decade, Kshama Sawant retired from public office on Tuesday. Sawant had been perhaps the best-known city council member in the country. A socialist winning office was a real rarity when she was first elected back in 2013, and Sawant drew considerable attention for her fights against Amazon and for increasing the minimum wage.

Despite her notoriety and real influence, and the declining stigma of the socialist label, Sawant’s experience demonstrates the difficulty Marxists face in this country. Marxists who get voted into local public positions face this conundrum: Their goal of dismantling the market economy and moving its political benefits away from those with the most significant wealth and power is not a daily concern to constituents concerned with their city’s living conditions. They want their community to be safe and pleasant, their transportation system to operate efficiently, and their utilities and housing to be affordable and available.

Socialists in elective office have become more common over the last few years. Multiple Democratic Socialists sit on each of the city councils in Burlington, Vt., Chicago, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. Three Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members are serving in Congress: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush. Sen. Bernie Sanders is a self-declared Democratic Socialist, but not a member of the DSA.

But Marxists such as Sawant remain almost unheard-of in American politics. For a decade, Seattle experienced having a self-declared Marxist on their city council. Not someone accused of being a Marxist, as MAGA folks and like-minded Republicans accuse anyone pursuing a progressive agenda. No, this was someone proudly declaring themselves as Marxist. In this case, a public official who believed, as did her Socialist Alternative (SA) party, that Karl Marx’s theories were correct.

I should note that I worked with Sawant for the last two years of my 18 years on the council. Despite her public persona as a rabble-rouser and a constant critic of the council, I found her warm and honest in a one-on-one setting. She was open about her beliefs and intentions without pursuing personal gain.

She survived a recall attempt in 2021. By the time she left, it was an odd omission for Sawant, or SA for that matter, not to announce that another SA candidate would be running for her seat, or any other council seat. Sawant always emphasized that she was working for SA’s political objectives, not pushing her personal political beliefs. In her retirement announcement, she emphasized the importance of her party. She said, “My office and Socialist Alternative have been successful in fighting for renters and the working class.” And, “The reason I am not running for office is because we believe that work needs to be continued in and outside of Seattle.”

In other words, SA would still be working in Seattle to make changes, presumably in the same manner that its most successful and visible member had done. So what is the takeaway from SA not engaging in electoral city politics after it successfully won a council seat and helped shape its policies? Is it because of the Marxism or the messaging?

Marxists’ Record in Winning Elections 

A Marxist public official is even scarcer than a liberal Republican in American politics. But they are present in other democracies. Major democracies such as Spain, Belgium, Greece, Portugal and France are represented in the European Parliament by Communist parties that ascribe to some Marxist version of socialism.

Socialists, by definition, are not necessarily Marxists; some are, and some are not. Likewise with socialist organizations. In the U.S., socialists in public office are much more common than Marxists, although still minuscule in numbers. While at least 30 organizations identify themselves as socialist in the U.S., only the DSA has a substantial membership. As of July 2023, they had 78,000 members, down from an all-time high of 95,000.

By comparison, in its February 2020 magazine, Socialist Alternative stated it had "just under 1,000" members. Fifty-one state legislators are also DSA members, which is 0.7 percent of the total. But there is no list of self-declared Marxists in public office in the U.S. An approximate measurement might be the number of Communist Party members elected to office. One also just stepped down from a small Pennsylvania Borough Council. To find a Communist Party holding office in a more sizable jurisdiction, you'd have to go back decades.

Socialist Alternative is a closed-membership, dues-paying organization requiring prospective members to pass an interview before being allowed in to ensure that they agree with the organization’s political beliefs. That restricted membership is both a strength and a weakness. Having screened membership allowed SA to select someone to be a candidate who would stay within their agenda. It also gave them a disciplined organization to execute a better ground game than any other candidate to get the vote out and win an election no one expected. Sawant’s initial election to one of America’s largest cities saw The Times of India, the world’s most widely circulated English-language daily, announce her victory.

Seattle’s Experience with a Marxist 

Kshama Sawant
Sawant sometimes found common cause with other members of the City Council, but didn't shy from criticizing them.
(David Julian/Seattle City Council)
The ultimate weakness of an organization's tightly closed leadership system is that it limits beliefs and information outside its control. Hence, leaders quickly discount input from others as invalid or unworthy of evaluation. This is the system that Sawant took with her to the Seattle City Council. Those familiar with how Sawant became a candidate insist that she became one out of obligation and her desire to further SA’s mission to create a mass working-class party.

She articulated that position in SA’s February 2021 magazine. She wrote that the goal of SA’s members was “to advance the Marxist ideas that will be necessary to win both immediate gains in the present crisis and a final victory over capitalism’s exploitation and oppression.” That’s a heavy lift, mainly if one’s day job is to mend the fences in her seven-square-mile city council district.

It was also a task made more difficult because she considered her fellow city council members to be part of “the corporate Democratic Party” and would not “hesitate to ramp up [SA’s] attacks on socialists and working-class movements.” Of course, the same would be true of Republicans — if Seattle had any on its council.

Once on the council, Sawant’s Socialist Alternative put forward an initiative to adopt a $15 minimum wage immediately and not have it increased incrementally over some years. The mayor’s office and the business community feared that the initiative could pass, so they were very much inclined to work for a quick solution. That threat provided leverage for the progressives on the council to get the minimum wage increased to $15 in three years for all big businesses, and over a longer period for smaller ones. Seattle’s legislation did have a national impact. In a few years, dozens of other cities began increasing minimum wages, and states followed.

Reluctance to Compromise

Socialist Alternative, with Sawant’s office at their disposal, was also able to push the council to pass pro-renter legislation and ban police use of tear gas and rubber bullets as “crowd control weapons.” Sawant and SA labeled a payroll expense tax bill as the Amazon Tax since Amazon would pick up about a quarter of the tax because of its vast number of employees working in Seattle. The bill passed the council, but they repealed it a month later due to heavy opposition from businesses and some construction unions. Sawant voted against the repeal.
Two years later, Council Member Teresa Mosqueda sponsored a new employer tax on companies with annual payrolls above $7 million. Named JumpStart Seattle, it was based on the number of highly paid employees rather than total employees. Sawant would not join the other five council members in co-sponsoring it.

Despite the new legislation falling short of the revenue that the Amazon Tax would have provided, Sawant did vote for it. But the reluctance to compromise is at the heart of why SA and other Marxist parties that engage in electoral politics have a difficult philosophical belief to overcome. Half-measure victories are not considered wins so much as sustaining a corrupt political and economic system, hence forestalling the rise of a revolutionary mass working-class movement. For Marxists, according to SA, “socialism builds toward building a classless society based on solidarity and equality, with an economy run and democratically planned, where there is no capitalist class.”

It's a goal that has yet to be achieved anywhere. Trying to get there through local elections seems too tiny a brick to lay down. This may explain why even the most successful Marxist party in recent decades has only run two other candidates for city councils, one each in Minneapolis and Boston. Both lost. Others may have run, but there is little leftist coverage of their efforts. Even vanilla socialists, derisively referred to as "reformers" by Marxists, have difficulty getting elected to public office.

Their rigidity in securing a victory that narrowly fits their beliefs can backfire. The most disastrous measure for SA was to carry the “defund the police” banner. The council ended up only slightly trimming the police’s massive budget, not cutting it anywhere near the slogan’s 50 percent. Nevertheless, SA convinced the public that the council would ax the police department. That resulted in a well-funded conservative backlash to toss out incumbent council members. Seattle’s city council is now less progressive, and not just because Sawant resigned from it.

Nick Licata is a former member of the Seattle City Council. A version of this article first ran in his newsletter, Citizenship Politics.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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