November 2018. Midway through the Trump presidency, amid a wintry season for the American left, news broke of four progressive candidates’ victories in the elections to the House of Representatives. Two were from the rust-belt Upper Midwest—Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib in Michigan—and two from mixed, inner-urban seats: Ayanna Pressley in Boston and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York. In many respects, they were a radical new type of Congressional candidate: all were young women of colour who had foregone the support of corporate donors to run with the backing of sanderista networks—Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement, Democratic Socialists of America—on platforms well to the left of the Pelosi leadership: Medicare for All, abolition of student debt, an increased minimum wage, a federal jobs guarantee, policies to combat climate change, abolition of ice and criminal-justice reform. During the Congresswomen’s freshman orientation on the Hill, Ocasio-Cortez posted a photograph to Instagram of the four gathered around a gleaming Capitol table and captioned it, ‘Squad’. A new bloc in American politics was born.
December 2019. In the aftermath of the Tories’ ‘Get Brexit Done’ landslide and a crushing defeat for Corbyn’s Labour, the British left took stock of the few victories yielded by months of cold campaigning.footnote1 A new intake of Labour mps had won seats in the House of Commons, seventeen joining the party’s Socialist Campaign Group. Among them were three young women of colour, whose first-time candidacies had been backed by activists from the corbynista network, Momentum. One was from the depressed, post-industrial Midlands—Zarah Sultana in Coventry—and two from run-down London constituencies: Bell Ribeiro-Addy in Streatham and Apsana Begum in Tower Hamlets.footnote2 Initially, the three showed little signs of considering themselves a political unit within the more disparate grouping of the Labour left. By mid-2021, however, in the face of Keir Starmer’s aggressively anti-left leadership, they had begun to co-ordinate statements and actions on a set of core issues for Labour socialists: support for striking unions, ending arm sales to Saudi Arabia, the need for a British Green New Deal, and criticism of police violence and surveillance of activists and minority communities. By the end of the year, without much fanfare, a left-Labour Squad had also come into being.
No doubt, not too much should be made of the s-word, which in aoc’s coining was more of a high-spirited joke than a precise analytical category. In both cases, these elected representatives are part of broader alliances. Behind them lie a decade of turbulent protests—in the us, the student movement, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, MeToo, the Dakota pipeline protests, anti-Trump mobilizations in defence of migrants, union organizing and multiple strikes. The uk has seen similar movements, though on a smaller scale—student occupations, anti-cuts protests, Extinction Rebellion, a surging campaign against police violence, inspired by the us but with a national character of its own, thanks to the brutal history of the country’s metropolitan forces in particular. These have been matched by, though regrettably disconnected from, the radical wing of the independence movement in Scotland and the resurgence of Sinn Féin in Ireland.footnote3 The left electoral advances of 2015–20—and indeed, the emergence of the Squads themselves—would be unimaginable without these prior ferments.
Yet the Squads may still perhaps serve as a sort of synecdoche for the remaining fortunes of the Sanders and Corbyn electoral turns—which, half a decade ago, embodied the hopes of many for a left exit from the crisis. While elsewhere the radical oppositions that sprang into being after 2008 found expression in independent forms—Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the Five Star Movement in Italy—in the us and uk they crystallized around leadership bids within the existing two-party systems. Both Sanders and Corbyn were roundly defeated, but the electoral gains symbolized by the squads have outlasted these defeats. For some, they represent the green shoots of a new democratic-socialist generation. For others, their successes are paltry comforts in the wake of left populism’s transatlantic defeats. To what extent do these groups go beyond the long-established practices of the parliamentary ‘soft left’ and congressional ‘progressive caucus’? By examining the self-positionings of the two squads, their constituencies and paths to office, as well as the political, institutional and ideological structures they confront, we may gain a clearer view of the obstacles facing the broader left as well; an indispensable starting point for thinking through how they might be overcome.
If the original groundwork for the American left’s electoral turn was laid by Sanders’s run against Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, garnering 13 million votes plus hundreds of millions of dollars in small donations, it was Trump’s victory over Clinton that further galvanized the new democratic-socialist base. As a token of its organizational push, new recruits now flooded into the dsa, while a confluence of radical groups and political action committees, flush with money from the Sanders campaign, set about backing democratic-socialist candidates for the local and national 2018 elections. Most conventional of these was Our Revolution, the Sanders outfit. More distinctively the Justice Democrats, founded by alumni of the Sanders campaign, aimed to marry its notion of ‘political revolution’—mobilizing the non-voting masses to back candidates who would represent them, and not the donor class—to technocratic-digital expertise. Its leading figures included Zack Exley, erstwhile director of the anti-Iraq War group MoveOn, and central to its alignment with the 2004 Howard Dean presidential campaign; and Saikat Chakrabarti, a Texas-born, Harvard-trained computer scientist who built the software linking local Sanders volunteers.footnote4 The Justice Democrats crowdsourced candidates for the 2018 congressional mid-terms—aoc was one of them—and offered training and funds to proto-candidates who agreed to turn down corporate donations and to support the basic Sanders programme.
The real novelty, however, was the revitalized dsa. In August 2016 Seth Ackerman, an editor at Jacobin, published an influential article in the magazine assessing the potential for ‘a serious electoral politics to the left of the Democratic Party’, given the enthusiasm generated by Sanders’s run. Ackerman set out the inordinately high barriers facing independent parties trying to stand in us elections, governed as they were by the ‘two-party state’. He also dismissed the idea of socialists simply working within the Democratic Party. Electing individual progressive candidates—a Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean or Elizabeth Warren—would do little to change the broad dynamics of American capitalism or its political system. ‘Grassroots’ organizations like Justice Democrats or Our Revolution, acting as brokers between an unorganized progressive constituency and ambitious office seekers, were little better. They virtually replicated the ‘internal’ model of the Democratic Party, set up in the 1830s by a network of powerful incumbents, led by New York Senator Martin van Buren, as an electoral machine to provide them with a ready supply of voters. The party didn’t even have real members, just state-registered voters and elected officials. In the type of party the left now needed, members would be sovereign, organized in local chapters as well as at national level, with a democratically decided programme, candidates recruited from among its members and an accountable leadership. As to how it got its candidates onto the ballot paper, it would be flexible: they could run in Democratic primaries or, where viable, as independents; paradoxically, the Supreme Court’s pro-corporate Citizens United ruling had freed up the sort of national small-donation funding such a party could supply.footnote5
Ackerman didn’t name any party; but within a matter of months, the previously skeletal dsa was growing by leaps and bounds. It was, of course, no coincidence that the blueprint for such a strategy emerged—however embryonically—in the pages of Jacobin. Spanning the Atlantic, both lefts have profited from a developing publication culture in which the programmes for electoral campaigning have been penned by activist-writers whose multiple allegiances coagulated to create a left ecosystem of new media, left pressure groups and think tanks, and advisory positions in the Sanders and Corbyn movements as well as on the staff teams of the squads that followed. It is no stretch to consider Jacobin the unofficial magazine of the dsa; its founding editor, the prolific Bhaskar Sunkara, was the organization’s vice-chair and subscriptions to the magazine have grown in tandem with dsa membership, which expanded from around 6,000 in 2015 to 92,000 today.footnote6 This growth makes the dsa by far the largest membership organisation on the left in America, and signals a victory for the legacy of its founder, Michael Harrington, whose politics was, like that of Sanders, based on an opposition to anti-systemic Marxian currents in favour of developing a democratic-socialist electoral platform.