Kshama Sawant’s election-night party seemed more like a rent party or a rally. The venue, Capitol Hill’s Melrose Studios, was a cement-floored basement, not a hotel ballroom. There was not a TV screen in sight, just many, many posters and vinyl banners. Two featured the iconic image of Che Guevara that once graced so many dorm rooms and head shops. One bore a classic inscription: “Trabajadores del mundo, únanse” — “Workers of the world, unite!”
Fresh-faced young greeters along the long table at the entrance insisted that arrivees sign both a sign-up sheet and a name tag, and implored them to contribute $15. “This party is costing us $1,200,” one explained — big money for a socialist running for city council.
Once I entered the party a pleasant woman in an enormous furry cap and fingerless gloves paused to check out my name tag, and I checked hers. “Meow,” it said. “Woof,” I naturally replied. She laughed and said, “It’s the anarchists versus the socialists,” and we both got it. Cats are anarchists, dogs are socialists, though not necessarily democratic ones.
A little over a century ago, in the ferment of the early labor struggles, anarchists and socialists were often bitter rivals, shouting and swinging and occasionally shooting at each other. Since then, anarchism has retained some of its power to alarm but “socialism” has become a term of nostalgia or mild contempt — unless you come from Vietnam, Cuba or the ex-Soviet Union and take it more seriously. In Seattle, home of Red Square and the Lenin statue, it has acquired a chic patina, but no one posing for pictures in front of Vladimir Ilyich pauses to think about what deeds the guy actually committed.
How then to explain the rise of Kshama Sawant, an economics instructor at two local colleges, a University of Mumbai-trained former software engineer and a stalwart of the Marxist, Trotskyist Socialist Alternative?
With 46 percent of the early returns, Sawant came closer to winning than even her supporters expected, closer than not only all the other three city council challengers but than Mayor Mike McGinn himself. And that was running against an incumbent widely regarded as able, earnest and solidly mainstream-Seattle progressive. Richard Conlin had won by wider and wider margins since 1997, when he himself unseated a City Council incumbent.
At the Sawant party, the warm-up speakers proclaimed victory an hour before the first results. Not because they expected their candidate to have a new job in January, but because they’d made their points and made them loudly: The $15 minimum wage she championed had gone from blue-sky dream (or, for some employers, darkening nightmare) to something like political orthodoxy: Both Seattle mayoral candidates had embraced it, and SeaTac voters were at that moment passing it.