An unprecedented ferment is developing around the country. That’s what we’ve been hearing from people we’ve talked with around the country. New Orleans The mood there is symbolized by the 7-10,000 …
Source: The Developing Mood in the US
An unprecedented ferment is developing around the country. That’s what we’ve been hearing from people we’ve talked with around the country. New Orleans The mood there is symbolized by the 7-10,000 …
Source: The Developing Mood in the US
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The past forty years have witnessed the stagnation and decline of the workers’ movement on a world scale. Imperialism has extended its reach deep into what were not long ago peasant economies, and increasingly shifts its productive industrial base into the so-called Third World. Hardly anywhere do workers have confidence in the false ‘socialism’ promulgated by the Stalinists of the USSR, now collapsed, or of China, now quite evidently the scene of rampant capitalist exploitation. Social reform and national liberation have steadily given way to a capitalist-imperialist order where the capitalists and their collaborators now enjoy an unfettered ability to penetrate and sabotage even the most embryonic of workers’ movements and capitalized on other modes of organizing such as nonprofits and NGOs to manipulate and ultimately quell each and every social movement. No longer does the term ‘revolution’ enter into the slogans of these movements in any honest manner, but simply arises as a marketing strategy to keep participants engaged, yet still cynical enough to keep them from actually taking revolution seriously.
Even so, cracks within the foundation are rapidly eroding the otherwise stalwart artifice of capitalist social relations. The Arab Spring, a resurgent Chinese workers’ movement, Black Lives Matter, and other jolts are shaking the neoliberal order, and the capitalist class is not looking as confident as it once did during the 1980s and 1990s. In this moment, these cycles of social protest will continue to ebb and flow, but at what point can they become large and deep enough to destroy the entire foundation of the capitalist system? This is where revolutionary socialists must come forward and begin the patient and critical work of revitalizing and deepening the workers’ movement.
The following is a working document on the political tasks of the present moment, as seen by the Mid-Atlantic Revolutionary Socialists, a collective of workers and their allies who seek to organize the class and participate in existing struggles in this new epoch of capitalist decay. We are in the process of preparing programmatic statements, including Workers and The Class Struggle and What We Fight For, which cover many important subjects that we do not address here. We welcome you to read over our document, offer critiques, and consider whether you want to join our ranks to fight for a revolutionary party of the working class—and for the ultimate defeat of the capitalist class and their collaborators.
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Capitalism, like all class societies, is the systematic organization of exploitation. It is a system in which the capitalists exist as a class only through capturing and managing the vast wealth of society at the expense of another class, the working class, who must bear the misery of exploitation through their labor. It is a system in which decisions and management have to be separated from labor and production through rights of property, in order to compel a working class to build the society without controlling it or their own work. Capitalists and workers exist as antagonistic classes, because capitalist society requires this division and interdependence.
When workers begin to challenge this exploitative relation, they challenge the capitalists for the very power to produce and redirect this vast societal wealth they have created and pose the challenge of revolutionary transformation into socialism. In standing together as a united class, workers set in motion the necessary overthrow of capitalism—they lock themselves into revolutionary class struggle against capitalists and their state.
Independence of the working class in its struggle is simultaneously the only way to actually improve its existence, and at the same time represents a political threat to capitalist power. But for this same reason, simply organizing the working class for its interests is a political question. Moreover, having an independent working class struggle always means a political conflict with capitalists. When workers begin to take power on their own, capitalist society ceases to operate normally, and capitalists quickly use their power to fire workers or bring in the police so they can resume control. Strikes and work stoppages are demonstrations of this conflict of power against power. It is no wonder that the capitalists’ response is to immediately use every tool at their disposal to crush workers’ organization and resume control: mass firings, scab labor, and the use of the police. If this proves impossible, the next easiest way to continue running capitalist society is to exchange a better economic deal for the workers for a surrender of their power to the management of the capitalist state.
In unions as well, the struggle of workers for power over production often leads to a cease fire, in which capitalists make room for some worker organization. But their next priority is to negotiate with someone in the union who can take hold of the union’s power, so that the union will become dominated by a bureaucratic manager in the same way as the rest of capitalist society.
It is the same with social movements—capitalists find the workers and oppressed exercising power, and they suggest that if the movement accepts the management of some negotiator, usually a ‘progressive’ social movement or NGO leadership, there will be a reward. Movements are threatening to capitalists to the extent they are not contained, so they tend to advance up to the point a pro-capitalist collaborator appears on the scene, and that means a bourgeois leadership can sometimes offer quite a lot as an initial concession—this is the market value of demobilization.
For these reasons, the Mid -Atlantic Revolutionary Socialists calls for the independence of the working class in action as a necessity on which there can be no compromise. This independence in action however is difficult to achieve and highly perishable, such that it can only be preserved by alertness and political awareness of workers to all of the potential traps which lay before them—a state of vigilance creating class consciousness. In short, the Mid-Atlantic Revolutionary Socialists argues for a revolutionary party of the working class, which is neither a supplement to nor an extension of the movement into electoral politics. The working class revolutionary party can only exist by being socialist in the sense of opposing the capitalists and fighting against their influence in social movements. The party as a political organization must form out of the very beginnings of a struggle, if it is to go beyond its first victory.
But what is a party? So far, we have spoken of it expansively, not as a centralized organization with membership criteria and fixed program. A party, defined politically, is the group of people who act together for the achievement of a goal within the political contestation of different interests. It is in this sense that Karl Marx can speak of ‘the proletarian party’ (or ‘the communist party’ or ‘the party of democracy’) in periods before politics worked through highly organized institutions. As Marx expressed it in the First International Workingmen’s Association of 1864:
Considering, that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes; That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end — the abolition of classes…
In the sense Marx means, the revolutionary sans culottes of 1789 formed a party well before the formation of the Jacobin club, the workers who fought for democratic republics in 1848 constituted a party without necessarily calling it such; and even the anarchists at all times and places act as members of parties even when they refuse all defined organization, so long as they are acting together.
Anyone involved in politics necessarily becomes part of a party whether they know it or want it to be so. A very common party position to take is something along the lines of, “I’m fighting for the struggle, I’m actively engaged in it, but I’m against organizing this struggle through a structured political party.” This anti-party standpoint expresses a prediction about what strategy will be most effective, and it can recommend courses of actions that do sometimes succeed. In capitalist society, however, the system of control and management over the lives of workers is very strong, and finds it easy to work with the anti-party perspective—why? Because, how is the struggle going to avoid being managed by the more organized bourgeois politicians, if their opponents are not organized? If those engaged in the struggle are not consciously aware of the need to preserve independent action against the capitalists, then won’t the absence of an organized party make workers more likely to relax pressure when the capitalists offer concessions? How will the argument for refusing to be managed by some appointed leadership compete with the economic benefits that leadership can offer?
It is obvious that for the movement to preserve its strength, all engaged in the struggle must become very well informed about how social movements or unions operate. Furthermore, they have to come together and hold discussions with the aim of presenting the best path that will resist capitalist ploys to demobilize the struggle. These are all political debates, and the more organized the activists are, the more they see their struggle as one of a party which stands firm and united in opposition to the capitalists. As comrades in the revolutionary party, they will be better equipped to take on the very real and very strong efforts of the collaborators of capital who wish to become the movement’s managers and dampen the workers’ struggle.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels also write,
The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.
It is obvious then at the very minimum that wishing to reject control by bureaucratic managers is no obstacle to being a Marxist! But, as Marxists, the M.A.R.S. collective does advocate an organization separate from almost all the organizations in which working class people are members—and so did Marx. And the reason is that, as Marx understood it, the working class party is necessarily the party of socialist revolution, so long as it is a party of the independent working class. Most of the parties with working class members are either fully bourgeois parties—such as the Democrats or the Greens—or parties based on workers organizations that follow the non-working class politics of helping the capitalists to manage capitalism—such as the Labor and Social Democratic parties of old. Ceasing to call for the eventual revolution, which is to say socialism, makes an organized party an opponent of what the workers have to do when they fight for their power. For Marxists, the party representing the interests of the whole working class has to be an organized party that opposes and rejects the leadership pushed upon our class by capitalists and their collaborators. So, the revolutionary socialists or communists must organize themselves as the conscious party of working class independence. This is the party into which we should try to bring all workers.
When the workers’ movement was at its height, revolutionaries such as Vladimir Lenin and Karl Kautsky understood the necessity of consciously using revolutionary theory as a means of preventing political capitulation to the many varieties of capitalist politics. In this sense, we in the M.A.R.S. collective agree with Lars Lih when he calls this the “merger formula”—the working class movement can only remain a working class movement through a conscious opposition to the most convenient kinds of capitalist politics. And this conscious opposition means taking up and using revolutionary socialist ideas, instead of rejecting them on the grounds that they did not come ‘from the workers’ at this or that point in time. Rather than ignoring revolutionary ideas—sometimes out of fear that they will isolate or alienate socialists by scaring off the workers—we are open and transparent in advocating a socialist revolution when organizing.
In this sense, socialist ideas are brought “from without” only to the extent that they are useful to the struggle. Solidarity demands of all socialists that they do their utmost to understand the perspectives of workers that they come into contact with, but also that they say openly what they think will be effective, which should include an organized party. On the other hand, the solidarity of the working class is best served by testing the effectiveness of different strategies through joint action, including by participating in organizations. With rare exceptions in clandestine organizations, the party never has coercive power over members and cannot order or control anyone except through their voluntary participation.
Within the M.A.R.S. collective, we have come to the conclusion that the problem of working class independence is the fundamental political question from which other strategic decisions follow, and is bound up with the task of socialist revolution. And support for working class independence, as a strategy, has become very uncommon in the years since the Third International under Joseph Stalin, which adopted the disastrous Popular Front strategy of always collaborating with a capitalist party (to make sure the better capitalist faction wins). Popular fronts build up the power of capitalists, and place the working class parties in the position of managing the workers to maintain the alliance with capitalists. Because almost all working class and socialist organizations advocate a popular front in one way or another, we cannot affiliate ourselves to most of them.
Opponents of the popular front usually take up the challenge of the Third International during its first four congresses, and advocate a party exclusively of revolutionary Marxists who are actively engaged in struggles to bring about the revolution, through an agreed program. This strategy is based on two conclusions: First, that capitalism has reached its ultimate potential, and so the economic basis for socialism is ready; and second, that the history of the workers’ movement has created a vanguard, or a grouping of the most class-conscious workers and allies, which is capable of carrying out the revolution if its efforts were organized.
The ‘vanguard party’ was not a party of vanguardists ordering the workers to seize power, but is rather the organized form of the workers who are ready to carry out the revolution. It is our view that the Bolshevik party in Russia met these criteria at least during 1917, as documented in Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and other works of historical scholarship by Alexander Rabinowitch and Kevin Murphy, among others. Because the socialist revolution did not succeed anywhere else, it is also the case that the vanguard of the working class no where else succeeded in organizing itself as a revolutionary instrument. Much can, and should, be said about the triumphs and mistakes of that period, but this is not the place.
We agree with the Third International that the objective material conditions to transition to socialism exist now, but in our interpretation the working class struggle has been weakened to the point that it is impossible to identify a fighting vanguard. The working class as a whole lacks the skills needed to conduct a revolution and move on to socialism. This is not to say those skills cannot be regained fairly quickly. But it is not possible, in our view, to rely upon ideological persuasion and education (“propaganda”) to assemble workers into the necessary vanguard. Socialists are not in the position of relying on the movement itself to develop in a way that leads to advanced workers becoming a vanguard able to use the revolutionary program. Rather, we as socialists must develop political organizations to promote the kind of opposition to capitalism that ultimately will constitute the fighting vanguard.
Like the Fourth International brought together by Leon Trotsky, a key organizer of the revolution in Russia and lifelong revolutionary, we believe that the Marxist program contains many of the necessary insights and tools to carry out the revolution, and it is possible for the working class to adopt many of these ideas and techniques through engaging in mass struggles. And above all else, we think the necessary condition for those struggles to develop into a successful working class vanguard is independent action by the working class, because popular fronts so greatly distort how the struggle is experienced and what can be learned from it. So, we agree that a class independent ‘united front’ is the best way to build up the power of the working class and the experience of its vanguard. And we agree with the Fourth International about advocating for ‘transitional demands,’ which are reforms the working class needs to have a decent life that can only be gained by fighting against and breaking down capitalist rule.
Too many times, large campaigns have broken up or vanished because they did not have a political direction to take after the capitalists repressed or co-opted the movement, and because the membership did not have the political background to mount a resistance. Socialists will obviously not be the only ones involved in organizing movements, but the pressure to make movements independent and effective will likely come from socialists taking the initiative to organize while criticizing those on the sidelines. Criticism from the left by socialists, in any case, tends to bring in more moderate forces with larger resources who would prefer that if organization happen, it is not bound to socialist politics. Reformists joining in a campaign is not a bad thing in itself, just as reforms are positive even when they are actually meant to demobilize the resistance. Still, we should anticipate and prepare for appeals to compromise wherever we begin to succeed, so socialist organization is not overwhelmed.
Trotskyists and the Fourth International, to the extent they have been forthright, have worked under the following premise:
All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet ‘ripened’ for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.
As this quote from 1938 predicts, because of the failure of proletarian leadership, the conditions for the revolution not only decayed but sunk into the soil and were reduced to a dormant potential. In terms of working class organization, if not economics, the possibility of an imminent revolution has not existed for some time. So, as Trotsky puts it, the crisis of revolutionary leadership played itself out into a catastrophe, and we are no longer in that crisis of revolutionary leadership but rather a still deeper crisis of class struggle as such. If class struggle is the dynamic element in human history, we have reached a point where humanity’s ability to deal with its problems through increasing degrees of consciousness and freedom is now in crisis as well.
What this means for the M.A.R.S. collective is that Marxists can no longer confine themselves to reconstructing the vanguard’s leadership needed to carry out the revolution. At this stage, even the independence of the working class is something advocated only by socialists, and revolutionary socialists at that. More, even the most basic organization of workers appears as an untenable departure from established managerial bourgeois processes of organization, to all but the most intransigent socialists. Because socialism is a development in humanity’s conscious control of society as well as sheer organization, nothing can be done for socialism without simultaneously making an issue of the political organization needed to resist capitalists and end capitalism. Social movements go no further than their first stage without building upon this oppositional stance.
Accordingly, the M.A.R.S. collective does not see it as its function to campaign for the best strategies and program while offering encouragement to those parts of the overall struggle that we think will eventually allow a transition to a working class vanguard. As suggested by the Marx-Luxemburg-Trotsky theory of Permanent Revolution, even the most minimal and democratic tasks will only succeed now to the extent they contribute to the working class struggle against capitalism and for socialism.
What socialists need to do is to become involved directly in the reconstruction of the working class movement. We cannot afford to leave politics aside in our organizing efforts and thereby reinforce the separation of socialist thought from working class activity. These must be merged together, as indeed was the case when a working class vanguard did in fact struggle for power. The arguments for rejecting capitalism are now so profound—from the prospects of war and environmental catastrophe to the durability of exploitation, authoritarianism, and international apartheid—that wishing to overthrow them is hardly more intellectually ambitious than asking to support for a Democratic Socialist in a primary.
To tell people that they should support a progressive capitalist party or join a mild socialist organization, when one actually believes in revolution, is condescending and preserves the separation of thought from action. “Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims.” To anticipate timidity and invent an agreement between liberalism and socialism, which most people already know to be false, is to interpose oneself as the manager of information and opinion above the proletariat. It is no kind of socialism from below to spare the membership by withholding political complexities, so these can then be handled by the advanced leadership. Socialism requires not the careful cultivation of intentional communities of agreement, but the culture of immediate and direct debate, premised on solidarity and working class unity.
For the M.A.R.S. collective, our practical intervention in the movement departs from the continuity and the traditional approaches of Trotskyism and Left Communism, from which we mainly hail—not because we think they were incorrect in their historical epoch, but simply because the nature of the task has changed. Our conviction is that the best ideas of Marxism are logically tenable and will hold up to intense debate, and that an immediate appeal for revolutionary socialism within the working class should be the goal of every Marxist. There have always been historical obstacles to engaging more people in revolutionary organizations, and to organized work among them, but in many ways those obstacles are weaker now than in the past. Our best chance as communists to influence the development of the movements of our time will be to intervene openly as communists, and to call for class independence of the working class so that it can act as a party. In such an arrangement, we expect to agitate as the tendency for the most general interests of the workers, which are satisfied only by the revolution.
Yet we do not simply intervene and join the movement with the exhortation, “Here is the truth, kneel down before it!” as Marx warns—but rather work shoulder-to-shoulder with comrades with whom we do not agree. The term ‘united front’ means precisely that we cooperate with other socialists and anyone else engaged in necessary (especially defensive) practical work. All the while, it is imperative to reserve the right to criticize and democratic debate choices that appear to be misleading or potentially dangerous. In that way, we say to other socialists that we will join with them in all useful actions, with the qualification that if we anticipate unwanted consequences, we will identify them. Should the common action fail, we all fail, and rather than dwelling on this defeat, we will suggest an alternative to better organize workers. There is always coaching on the sidelines in class struggle, but as a revolutionary socialist one must nevertheless take part even when expecting a defeat that cannot be averted, always with a stubborn, revolutionary sense of optimism.
Furthermore, we are not naïve—we expect many debates to occur among socialists, and frequently we will be in the minority. As much as we would like to maintain a single fighting and revolutionary party of the working class, these controversies may sometimes lead to splits. It can be expected, from a realistic appreciation of history, that the working class movement will see some shifts towards pro-capitalist leadership or strategies. This is, to put it plainly, a serious threat to discuss and prepare for in advance, and should such a leadership take hold we will firmly oppose this kind of opportunism. The only response to these kinds of dangers is better political preparation throughout the course of the movement. Development of socialist politics and working-class independence will aid us in unifying all of our actions and keep us strong and resolute to resist the capitalists and their collaborators.
In spite of our mixed origins, we do not promote the “unity between Marxists” but the “unity of Marxists” as Lenin once put it. We seek the unity of Marxists through finding common ground in practice and in theory, in democratic debate, and in the militantly agitating and organizing the working class in a manner that is effective. We learn from our mistakes and victories through united front work in the workers’ movement. We are not interested in cafeteria-style politics which sees the good in all “Marxist” tendencies, artificially separating from them their historical development. We view Stalinism as a degenerated and conservative tendency that blocks the path to working-class liberation of society, as well as problems in other tendencies. No government of the past eighty years which called itself “socialist” actually was, for in actuality they merely maintained a parasitic relationship to the gains won by the working class in those countries. We are advocates of the permanent revolution which seeks to uproot capitalist social relations in all existing societies.
In Bolivia during the 1960s, a large contingent of tin miners were won over to Trotskyism against the Stalinists. Moscow bureaucrats were visiting these mines as part of a technology transfer from the USSR to Bolivia, where the nationalist government had crushed the revolutionary workers’ struggle. Standing before thousands of Bolivian workers, the bureaucrats saw among them portraits of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the most important leaders of the Russian Revolution—and to make things worse, holding up four fingers signifying the Fourth International. Alarmed by the sight, Stalinists held up three fingers for the Third International, a gesture which belied the fact that Stalin himself had already dissolved it decades earlier.
The Fourth International was a defiant symbol, and even so its history was riddled with betrayals and opportunism. It has served as the battle flag for revolutionary workers fighting in Spain in the 1930s, in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Brazil, and Vietnam, and for many others. At the same time, its leadership in the post-war period made serious errors, often capitulating under the twin pressures of capitalism and Stalinism. But the crimes of the leadership do not contaminate the rest who continued to righteously fight under its banner. The Mid-Atlantic Revolutionary Socialists want to learn from the setbacks and successes of the Four Internationals but ultimately move forward in this new era. We declare ourselves as uncompromising revolutionary socialists.
We look to the leaders of the Russian Revolution V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky with critical approval although we do not descend politically from any single tendency of Bolshevism. In our combined experience of agitation and organizing, we recognize that the cold divorce of revolutionary theory from the workers’ movement has reached a critical point. We seek to reaffirm revolutionary theory in the struggles of today, not by recycling the history of the workers’ movement, but showing what it is capable of through its historic experiences. To that end, the Mid-Atlantic Revolutionary Socialists advocate theoretical training and agitation necessary for this new generation of young radical workers and communists. As a working-class collective, we are dedicated to help build the core of what will become the vanguard of the working class. The analyses and actions of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky serve as guides, not scripture, in this mission.
We engage with workers and oppressed peoples in a supportive, but critical manner. Because workers do not arrive at sites of struggle fully-formed with a communist perspective, even the most militant are often held back by ingrained bourgeois ideas and reflexes. A revolutionary perspective must be able to grapple with immediate circumstances and posit ways forward in order to advance class consciousness. This requires going through the experience of the decisions undertaken by workers. As revolutionary socialists, we see how the fight for reforms and the defense of the oppressed are instances where the class does express itself and ought to be defended and advanced in a more revolutionary direction.
Regardless of the intensity of the conflict or its demands, we work tirelessly to promote and explain the necessity of transitional demands now and during a revolutionary upheaval. We view these as tasks which aim to put workers and the oppressed on firmer ground while continuing to fight for socialism and ultimately communism, a society free of class and oppression. If this message resonates with you, we urge you to join the Mid-Atlantic Revolutionary Socialists. We cannot achieve this task alone, and you are needed in humanity’s struggle for socialism.
We are reposting here a series of articles originally published in Left Voice on the problems with working within the Democratic Party and the need for a truly independent party for the working class.
The surprise Republican triumph in the 2016 presidential election was very far from a socialist victory, but presents dangers that are at least more widely recognized than the more insidious campaigns of deportations and war that follow from wins by the Democrats. The yawning gap between a socialist vision and bourgeois electoral aspirations necessitates an immediate and total break with Republicans and, especially, Democrats.
Those that believe the Democrats can be dragged to a working class position are proven wrong not only by the entire history of the party, but by the recent statement of Democrat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who commented that the election results won’t prompt the Democrats to change course. The promotion of “Senator from Wall Street” Chuck Schumer to Senate Minority Leader should give pause to those who expect the Democrats to change their stripes.
Trump’s ability to win with such a small share of the potential U.S. electorate represents a profound rejection of the strategy and platform of the Democrats, and the fact that over 70 percent of eligible voters refused to vote for the only experienced politician in the race constitutes a dramatic protest against the neoliberal economic order as well.
While Trump’s ascension to power is, no doubt, an immediate victory for the right, it was not the favored strategy of capitalists prior to the election, and his opponents outside the capitalist class now have the chance to prove why that was the case. The discrediting of mainstream forces opposing Trump reveals a void of leadership that is ready for a political force with a compelling perspective to fill. Thus the radical left is confronted with its most fruitful opportunity for winning over large segments of the public in recent memory.
The political opening is auspicious for a number of reasons. First, the legendary repulsiveness of Trump’s behavior is shocking to anyone with any semblance of moral principle, and this includes a significant portion of those who voted for him. Second, any attempted implementation of his more extreme social policies would catalyze significant opposition. Third, despite his promises to “drain the swamp” by charting some alternate political course, Trump is filling his administration, in the main, with a cast of swamp-dwellers who are familiar faces in the business, political and military worlds. Trump’s bluster notwithstanding, it is evident that he is not controlling the establishment, but that the establishment is controlling him. Such discrediting associations are already being questioned by his populist following.
Fourth, a looming economic downturn, or even continued stagnation, will shatter any notion that Trump can deliver renewed economic prosperity to large sections of the U.S. In sum, Trump’s administration is set up for failure. His supporters will soon be seeking answers elsewhere.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there are already significant populations that can be immediately won over to a more progressive platform without having to pry them away from Trump. The enormous popularity of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign displayed the enthusiastic ranks ready and willing to break with the neoliberal agenda. Bernie’s support among youth, even segments that were wrongly thought to be comprising Hillary’s impregnable “firewall,” was particularly striking.
The response to a spate of despicable post-election intimidation and harassment directed against racial and religious minorities also demarcates a set of people searching for political solutions. The targeted groups and their concerned allies are mobilizing against any further repression, whether it be by the state or cowardly right-wing vigilantes. All of these layers would likely be receptive to a progressive political appeal.
On the other hand, the Democratic Party has singularly embarrassed itself as an institution for directing public opinion, and was quite rightly abandoned and disparaged by millions. The fact that even greater numbers of potential voters rejected both parties is a very good thing, and the debacle of the Democrats will only solidify workers’ implicit understanding that no capitalist government can reflect their interests. It would be a great mistake to try to convince them otherwise.
The passionate anger of the public with the economic and social system that the Trump and Sanders campaigns tapped has not dissipated. How to focus these resentments into a left-wing force is the burning issue for radicals today. In such circumstances, the question of left political organization rightly comes to the fore. Who will seize this political moment?
The latest issue of Jacobin Magazine features an article by Seth Ackerman containing what he calls a “blueprint” for a new party he hopes will rise to the challenge. While the piece has its merits, ultimately the party and strategy he proposes contribute very little to advancing a progressive, to say nothing of a socialist, vision.
Ackerman’s piece has a promising enough opening. It would be valuable, as he states, “to advance new electoral strategies for an independent left-wing party rooted in the working class,” since the predominant liberal-left strategy of attempting to win victories through the Democratic Party has yielded little fruit over the past decades. (We add, of course, that the activities of “an independent left-wing party rooted in the working class” should certainly not be limited to elections!) But unfortunately, Ackerman ends up endorsing that same left-Democrat strategy, albeit in a circuitous fashion.
Ackerman’s analysis draws on the history of the Labor Party, a party whose mistake, he argues, was to pursue a separate ballot line. However, the Labor Party, not wanting to be a “spoiler” and take votes away from a Democratic candidate and thus increase the likelihood of a Republican victory, only actually ran a candidate on its own ballot line once in a “last-ditch effort near the end of its active life” in South Carolina. But the inability, or unwillingness, of the Labor Party to actually contest elections led many to question the rationale for the social-democratic party’s existence. This “nagging question,” along with the decline of the labor movement generally, sealed the Labor Party’s demise.
It is in his analysis of third-party electoral politics in the U.S. that Ackerman actually has something valuable to say. This discussion, which takes up the bulk of his article, buries the argument that small third parties have any chance at electoral success in the U.S. under present conditions. The barriers that a third party faces in the “uniquely repressive” U.S. electoral system are legion: Democrats and Republicans appear automatically on ballots, whereas third parties “have to overcome a maze of cumbersome legal requirements”; seeking ballot status mandates third parties cede control of internal party matters to hostile state legislatures; after obtaining ballot access third parties need to fend off harassment, legal and otherwise, from mainstream party partisans; etc. (In passing, we note that other critics of Ackerman disagree that these are formidable obstacles to running a third-party candidate.) Ackerman concludes, “We need to realize that our [electoral] situation is more like that facing opposition parties in soft-authoritarian systems, like those of Russia or Singapore.”
Ackerman then launches into a critique of the “prevailing model of progressive political action for decades” of working within the Democratic Party:
[E]lecting individual progressives does little to change the broad dynamics of American politics or American capitalism. In fact, it can create a kind of placebo effect: sustaining the illusion of forward motion while obscuring the fact that neither party is structurally built to reflect working-class interests.
This correct and common-sense (for leftists) observation gives the reader the expectation that Ackerman will be proposing a break with the Democratic Party—reinforced when he rightly criticizes the NGOs (e.g. MoveOn, Our Revolution, etc.) and parties like Working Families Party that effectively march to the tune of the Democratic Party. But, regrettably, this is not the course that Ackerman takes. Instead, with an ironic titular nod to Lenin, Ackerman lays out the meat of his proposal in the last section of his piece, “A Party of a New Type”:
The following is a proposal for such a model: a national political organization that would have chapters at the state and local levels, a binding program, a leadership accountable to its members, and electoral candidates nominated at all levels throughout the country.
As a nationwide organization, it would have a national educational apparatus, recognized leaders and spokespeople at the national level, and its candidates and other activities would come under a single, nationally recognized label. And, of course, all candidates would be required to adhere to the national platform.
But it would avoid the ballot-line trap. Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line.
The ballot line would thus be regarded as a secondary issue. The organization would base its legal right to exist not on the repressive ballot laws, but on the fundamental rights of freedom of association.
Ackerman follows this underwhelming proposal with suggestions for financial-legal wizardry for sustaining such an organization. Finally, he concludes his piece by saying, “A significant part of the labor movement would have to be at [the proposed organization’s] core.”
What are we to make of Ackerman’s blueprint? The contradictions of the proposal with the rest of the article are striking. In the same paragraph, Ackerman talks of avoiding the ballot-line “trap,” but then offers it as a plausible option. The minor-party primary route is suggested, but Ackerman convincingly demonstrated the impotence of third parties earlier. The organization is purportedly going to be carried by the labor movement, but Ackerman correctly pointed out the labor movement has been in secular decline. This organization, at first glance, sounds like an attempt to revive the Labor Party, which would be doomed for the same reasons, according to Ackerman, that the Labor Party failed: inability to decide whether to run on a ballot or not, facing the nigh-insurmountable constraints that the U.S. electoral system imposes on third parties, and the erosion of the organization’s labor movement base.
What, then, is left of Ackerman’s proposal after this dead-end course is ruled out? He admits the possibility of the organization running candidates in major-party primaries. Barring some unforeseen mainstream political realignment, this can only refer to one party: the Democratic Party. Thus we are back at a strategy Ackerman earlier bemoaned. But one wonders what the benefit of Ackerman’s proposed organization would be in implementing this strategy. The organization could not enforce meaningful discipline, since expelling a candidate would not prevent him or her from running on the Democratic ticket. Funding for primaries would make an additional stop at the organization’s bank account, but nevertheless end up in the pockets of Democrats. “Progressive” Democrats face significant pressure to distance themselves from anything like a socialist agenda, but would face no threat of losing the organization’s voters as Ackerman argues, “We’re better off with such politicians in office than without them.” In sum, Ackerman’s pitch to progressives can be condensed as follows: continue voting for and working with Democrats, but add a comforting attempt at deliberative process.
Really, if one wants the Democrats to win, and insists that any political organization ought to make room for Democrats to win elections by remaining on the same ballot line, then it follows that things will be better if the Democratic Party does not collapse as an organization. Many would support the Democratic voting bloc as essentially a necessary evil for protection against Republican excesses and active disenfranchisement. Since a defensive vote for the Democrats can be rationalized as an ethical imperative (i.e. saying it takes privilege to not vote), there is every likelihood that supporting victories for Democrats in critical situations will logically unwind into the ‘progressive Democrat’ position of trying to give the party a chance to win any election possible, including by supporting candidates from the party’s right. With the Democratic establishment as unpopular as it is, enthusiastic leftists are often the only way for it to reconstitute itself, just as has been the pattern since the early days of the Popular Front and community organizing.
If the local branch of the Democrats in a midwestern town is moribund, then left activists could get some sway in local and state politics by reviving the branch, but that would also strengthen the party at all levels. In all likelihood, these kinds of left candidacies would make it very easy for voters to avoid having to make a hard choice to give up on the Democrats, and to continue to identify with them in state and national races. The Democratic Party, as it happens, has habitually used this approach not only to drum up support for unpopular higher level candidates, but to draw idealistic activists into the dead end of Democratic internal politics.
But perhaps most importantly, keeping the Democratic Party alive means preserving the chance for it to succeed as a national political force, and that has always meant keeping the Democrats’ policies viable in the eyes of capitalists. These kinds of compromises happened more than once before, and so long as it matters whether the purported good side of capitalist politics stays alive, it proves necessary to give the better capitalists the means to actually govern. So in fighting the defensive battle against the greater evil, supporters of the Democrats will be politically engaged in promoting the success of their side, and therefore committed to preserving capitalists’ capacity to rule.
It seems Ackerman has not given up on the dream of transforming the Democratic Party into a social-democratic party. Since this vision fundamentally depends on rebuilding the labor movement, one wonders why Ackerman evaded that issue, and left it to the last sentence of his piece to mention that it would be a requirement. It is the sine qua non of social-democracy; all tasks reduce to it.
Why does Ackerman utilize a roundabout argument which denounces Democratic party politics-as-usual before implicitly endorsing it? It is because, on the one hand, he recognizes that the current U.S. electoral system leads to terrible outcomes for workers and the world at large. But on the other hand, all alternative electoral options seem to be closed off. The cruel logic of the two-party system, of “spoilers” and “lesser of two evils,” leaves him no choice but to put on a brave face and cast what will surely be a defeat as bold innovation.
On careful analysis, there is no way to avoid the conclusion that what Ackerman calls a new party is actually a proposal to run largely as a caucus in Democratic primaries. He is forthright in saying that he prefers Democrats to win under many circumstances, but even if this were not said, the strategy unfortunately leads to working for the political success of the Democratic Party. In this, the new Jacobin proposal shares much with attempts at left politics over the past half century, and there is a critical need to go in a different direction now.
If we do need a new party, or a new organization, that represents the working class, there has to be a clear line which specifies the limits of members’ permissible participation with a bourgeois party such as the Democrats. Traditionally, the socialist answer to this problem has been a simple one: absolutely no collaboration with bourgeois parties. Deviating from this mandate, as in the Popular Front era, merely subsumed working class organizations under the control of bourgeois forces where they were, predictably, deradicalized. Working for the election of a bourgeois candidate is a tried and true way to sap the energy of the left, delay more meaningful struggles, and ultimately demoralize those who had been inspired to join in the political fight. A solution like Ackerman’s will remain highly persuasive until a better alternative is offered and challenges are made to Democratic Party affiliation. This alternative is in fact that of the historical socialist parties, which Ackerman fails to characterize accurately.
Ackerman implies that his proposal reconstructs the approach of parties that have been democratic and socialist, but he makes a major revision which he does not identify. In fact, the socialists of history placed the first and greatest emphasis on the class that their party would represent. If socialists are correct that society is divided by exploitation and oppression into classes with opposed interests, then a party can only effectively represent the interests of either the capitalist class or the working class. Members of the middle class have a chance to make common cause with one class or another, but they must choose. The Democratic party represents such a coalition between capitalists and parts of the upper middle class, but in elections it blackmails workers into supporting it for fear of something worse.
Socialists around the turn of the last century tended to believe that the difference in interests between workers and capitalists was nothing less than a war fought between the destruction of the lives of the working population on one side, and the liberation of the world on the other. This was as true during World War I as it is today. For the working class to have actual influence in politics, it would need its own party. To argue with capitalists within a common party, for example by contesting primaries, would deprive the workers of their real chance to see at least one organization in society represent their interests. Therefore, the independence of the working class was an issue to be taken care of first, without which party democracy would be meaningless.
It may seem extravagant to say that the workers of this country will support a party exclusively for themselves and the shared interests of the international working class, but that was exactly the politics of the workers’ parties that Ackerman admires, and it is already confirmed in the negative by mass rejection of the capitalist parties. That said, Ackerman is right to emphasize that a party should be organized democratically, in permanent contact with its members and accountable to them, and with a public and binding platform.
Socialists of the past regarded an independent working class party as indispensable, and for good reason. Ackerman contends that we should vote for candidates who are inspiring, and that this creates hope and momentum. Bernie Sanders comes to mind as such a figure. But for socialists, it is not particular candidates who are on the ballot, but the working class as a collective political actor. When workers vote for the socialist party, they are not asserting that they support and have hope in some set of leaders, rather they are voting to register that the working class should have power, and that a certain number of workers have made that their objective. Indeed, the socialist candidates could sometimes be less inspiring members of the party, depending on the circumstance. In a way it is better if we see voting simply as a way to test our strength and show to the working class as a whole that there is a majority of the population who have the interest and capacity for revolution and socialism. This is because voting is not an effective, nor particularly socialist, way to exercise power in a capitalist country.
The capitalist state is a power over and above the population, which represents the power the working class does not have, which is instead wielded by their oppressors. The electoral and political processes, through most of history, have been very good at suppressing the development of the power and interests of the masses. This is why we turn to social movements, but the state is also effective in granting concessions so that the social movement will die, and these concessions can be taken away again.
Nevertheless, the working class in particular has control over the labor needed to keep society going, and in times of crisis has the opportunity to attack and defeat the existing power structure. When people vote, they typically hope that the candidate will use the power of the state in a better way. Unfortunately, this is almost always proven wrong, either because of deception or failure. Voting for Trump, or Clinton, or Sanders, or Stein, exercises only a tiny amount of power, but it does express an intention to test out whether the candidate will use the power of the state somewhat more favorably. In this sense, it is an alienation of one’s political intentions and consciousness, that ratifies another person holding power that we do not hold.
Generally speaking, putatively socialist parties in office have helped the working class much less than they promised. Also, this usually results in disappointed hopes, an electoral reversal, and eventually a new government that sweeps away most of what the socialists enacted. It is even worse when the candidate is not a socialist. The only compensation is that voting for the workers’ party can express confidence in the power of the working class, in addition to any candidates or parliaments. In fact, socialists historically said that they knew they would not be able to rule a capitalist state in the interests of the workers. And they admitted that since socialists could not control capitalism through parliament, it would be a lie to say otherwise, and a betrayal of the voters’ hopes. Again, these are radical ideas, but regrettably they are true. Socialism is a philosophy that says human beings have more power if they are free, treated with dignity, and provided full information.
In honesty, the best we can say is this: an election is important not as a blow against capitalists directly, but as a sign to the rest of the workers of our strength and readiness. Getting an official elected will usually not produce much material good, but it can have a very great effect in allowing us to defend our views, attack the capitalists in argument, disrupt the legislative process and to argue publicly for organizing the working class in the most effective ways available, outside the electoral process. All of these things are important, and make participation in elections worthwhile. But when people conclude that elections and candidates cannot help them, they are more correct than most leftists, and we can only justify our participation in politics if we offer some kind of improvement over abstention. A socialist election campaign would be an improvement, while a socialist running within a party that most people already reject would be a setback.
We need not only rely on analysis to reject Ackerman’s strategy, or wait for some future test of its feasibility before dismissing it, since the Bernie Sanders campaign provides sufficient evidence for how it would play out in practice. We submit that Ackerman’s basic orientation is echoed in a recent statement released by left-wing members within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a big-tent social-democratic political organization in the United States:
We reject the realignment strategy that has guided much of the left’s electoral orientation for decades. We do not, however, call for an immediate and total break from voting for or supporting any Democratic candidate. We all fervently supported Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, and recognize that he probably would have been a footnote to the campaign if he tried to run as an independent. Voting for Democratic candidates in specific state and local races can be justified in many circumstances.
But if we want to move beyond the cycle of mobilization and retreat that dominates left electoral activity in the US, we have no choice but to build our own political formations and do what all parties do – run candidates for office, particularly in states and localities where competition between Democrats and Republicans is low. Considering the many institutional barriers to effective independent politics, they will also have to launch fights to change ballot access laws and other measures aimed at maintaining the two-party duopoly.
The DSA members’ stance is not far afield from DSA’s official position on elections: “[W]e will continue to support progressives who have a real chance at winning elections, which usually means left-wing Democrats.” The major difference between the two similar approaches seems to be the call to “build our own political formations.” That is, political formations of the kind Ackerman advocates that are independent of the Democratic Party.
But the DSA members’ statement is riven with the same contradictions as Ackerman’s strategy. After defiantly rejecting the Democratic Party politics-as-usual, they declare in the next sentence it might not be so bad after all. They explicitly state voting for Democrats in “specific state and local races” might be permissible, but also mention they all “fervently supported” the Bernie Sanders campaign, notably in neither a state nor local race. It seems that as voters increasingly reject the Democratic establishment, the declared urgency of working within the Party becomes all the more imperative!
The DSA members’ statement is perhaps mistaken in another way — it was precisely Bernie’s refusal to chart an independent political strategy that thwarted any chances he might have had of winning the presidency. Sanders lost to Clinton in the Democratic primary, and at that point endorsed Clinton in the general election as he had previously agreed. Had he taken an alternate course and run as an independent after participating in the Democratic primary, given he had mobilized considerable national support and resources for his platform, he could have overcome the existing obstacles to third party campaign in all but, perhaps, a handful of states. Is it so difficult to believe that Sanders, the most popular politician in the U.S., would have beat out Trump and “Crooked Hillary,” the two least popular presidential candidates in history, in a contest among the general electorate? Because Bernie is more dedicated to keeping his promises to the Democratic Party than he is to attaining meaningful power, we will never know how this counterfactual would have unfolded.
Despite pretenses to the contrary, Sanders is firmly embedded inside the Democratic Party machine and his relationship to the Democrats explains why his campaign seemingly failed to ever consider such an audacious move. It is an object lesson in how association with the Democratic Party necessarily narrows one’s political horizons and circumscribes one’s strategic acumen.
True to form, Sanders squandered the opportunity to channel his support into a force for working class politics by enthusiastically accepting the offer to be in charge of rebuilding the Democratic Party. Bernie’s choices vindicate those who accused him of being a “sheepdog” during the election, but his post-election behavior underscores the following lesson: once one is inside the Democratic Party, the sheepdogging never really ends. The “Our Revolution” NGO seems like it will turn out to be yet another Democratic Party-aligned body, and much of its erstwhile leadership defected for precisely this reason.
The fear of being a “spoiler” crippled Bernie’s strategy (or, it would have, if he had the integrity to withhold his promise to support the Democratic Party), as it has so many progressive thrusts in the past (e.g. the Labor Party, as Ackerman shows). Until the spoiler hangup is dispelled, it will be a stick the Democrats will wield to cow anyone who threatens to run to their left, and the loyal opposition will be given no choice but capitulation on each occasion.
Fortunately, there is a way out of this mess of Democrats having a de facto veto over all left electoral efforts — a principled position of being pro-spoiler. Indeed, socialists should aim not simply to spoil the Democrats’ electoral chances, but to destroy the Democrats as a political force and, more pointedly, defeat the bourgeois class that the Democratic Party represents.
But as the past several elections have shown, the Democrats have proven quite capable of defeating themselves. Their uninspiring overtures have left them in a position of historic weakness, controlling no branches of national government and only a handful of state governments. The recognition that the neoliberal ideology the Democrats have championed is profoundly resented by the public is causing even some party stalwarts to lose faith. And the underlying economics of neoliberalism mean workers will only gain at the expense of capitalists — and, what is profoundly significant, much of the country now seems to understand that the Democratic Party will always side with the latter.
At this time, it is imperative that socialists encourage mass defection from the Democratic Party, not embark on a misguided mission to reconstitute it on a more progressive basis. Those fleeing the hollowed-out shell of the Democratic Party have recognized, or at least have a nagging intuition about, the limits of what electoral politics can win for the working class. This is an unquestionably positive development, and perpetuating the mythology that the Democrats operate as any kind of effective obstacle to the right will obscure the essential class fracture that divides society.
Moreover, it is impossible for there to be a Corbyn-like insurgency within the Democratic Party, for reasons that Ackerman makes clear: the Democratic Party is not an organization with a meaningful membership, much less a membership that controls the decisions of the leaders democratically. Those that mark D on an election ballot have no opportunity to determine the program or leadership of the party. Those decisions are made by a network of party donors, think tanks, and bureaucratic officials, none of whom champion workers’ interests in the slightest.
Organizationally, the Democrats are very much a party, and one that consistently promotes capitalist politics. The most effective way for Democrats to maintain control over voters is to continue to accommodate ineffectual ‘progressive’ initiatives and caucuses that disavow the actual means to threaten the central managers, which is abandoning the party. The possibility that the doyens who hold the Democratic Party firmly in their grip would turn its future over to an insurgent left-wing current within the party is unthinkable.
We do not take responsibility that a lesser evil should win elections, and neither should socialists generally. The working class has no obligation to attempt to use the Democratic Party as a defense against the right, and its struggle will be stronger without this impediment. Fearing for the defeat of Democrats only demoralizes the social movements, strikes, and civil disobedience that can actually force the state to reckon with the power of the workers and oppressed. Giving the Democrats support, even through outsider campaigns, has only ever given the capitalists confidence to move further to the right. Withdrawing support from the Democrats is more likely to cause them to adopt reforms in a desperate attempt to regain their influence over the working class. And continuing to oppose the Democrats, with improved organizational tools, will maximize the kind of threat they can understand. The capitalists are responsible for what the Democratic Party does and they can nominate reform candidates whenever they choose who would win large majorities, given the progressive sympathies of the electorate.
If the capitalists cannot preserve the legitimacy of either of their parties in their established forms, that is a punishment that is more than deserved. Socialists can either stand alongside workers who have rejected collaboration with capitalist parties, or else they will find themselves to the right of the masses.
Credit Where It’s Due
Before moving on, we would like to thank Seth Ackerman and Jacobin for initiating, in print, the discussion concerning new forms of independent working class organization. We, obviously, have many deep and profound differences with Ackerman’s approach. However, Ackerman’s article does advocate a distinct strategy that is gaining popularity in some circles, and his article’s publication allowed us the opportunity to polemicize against this position. At a time when the masses are increasingly politicized, a clear, candid and sharp discussion of different approaches to left politics is a necessary and essential condition for tempering a stronger socialist movement.
As we proceed further, it is worthwhile to review the ground already covered. In the first chapter in the series, we argued that the Democratic Party’s collapse provides an opening for a left political force to fill. In the second chapter, we criticized Seth Ackerman’s proposal for a new organization as inadequate to take advantage of this opportunity. In the third chapter in the series, we highlighted the Bernie Sanders campaign as an example of how “progressive” challenges within the Democratic Party are bound to fail as a strategy to advance working class interests.
Hopefully at this point the reader is persuaded that abandonment of the Democratic Party must be a fundamental axiom of socialist political strategy. However, until this point we have been talking about elections, which are only one piece — and certainly not the most important piece — of the strategic puzzle.
For socialists to formulate an effective strategic orientation, we argue in this article, it is necessary to grasp what the limits of elections are — that is, the maximum gains that could possibly be won via elections. Moreover, socialists must recognize that real power is gained through extra-electoral means; elections are simply a periodic register of the underlying balance of forces. Building up proletarian power is a difficult and complicated task, and will ultimately require a working class political organization — a party — to unify, coordinate and, at times, direct struggles against the bourgeoisie.
Although a social-democratic party is very far from achieving a majority government in the United States, those that advocate such a route ignore the inherent limits to using electoralism for the purpose of advancing a class agenda. In the (unlikely) event of a radical working-class party sweeping into power via election, there is little to guarantee that the bourgeoisie would be inclined to respect the result. On the contrary, the victory could be the signal for the bourgeoisie to brazenly cast aside the democratic system, since it no longer would be serving its intended purpose as a means of exercising ruling class power. The history of Allende’s government in Chile comes to mind as a paradigmatic example, but precedents go back as far as Louis Napoleon’s 1851 coup.
Of course, coups are not the bourgeoisie’s preferred means of thwarting working class advances, if only because they are too unpredictable. An investment strike, where capitalists stop hiring and making investments to undermine reform policies, is a preferred tactic, but most ‘socialist’ governments are all too aware of the costs of antagonizing capitalists and strive to avoid it. So the capitalists rarely have to resort to an active investment strike — but they often use aggressive financial tactics to neutralize left wing governments, for example during the recent experience of Syriza in Greece. Because the working class was not effectively mobilized in Greece and throughout the European Union, the social democrats in power could not resist capitalism internationally, and ended up as managers for the same system they were elected to dismantle.
More systematically, capitalists employ well-honed tactics of supporting political factions from center-left to far right, which counter working-class interests at the ballot box and on the streets. Certainly, one manifestation of these efforts is the Democratic Party. But in times of intensified social struggle, the bourgeoisie can be counted on to muster more illiberal forces into the class struggle. One can look to the pre-World War I German bourgeoisie’s financing of ethno-nationalist organizations in the wake of the SPD’s 1912 electoral surge as a case in point, although one can find plenty of examples in the present day. If the rightist groups called upon to combat the working class have retrograde social views — xenophobia, misogyny, racism, etc. — that is a price that the ruling class is more than willing to pay to maintain power. This threat is unfolding as we speak in the United States and throughout Europe, and creates urgent problems of defense for the oppressed.
None of this is to say that running candidates in elections is itself valueless or misguided. Indeed, we do advocate using elections, as socialists historically have, as part of a larger strategy to advance working class power. We simply counsel a realistic appraisal of the limitations of electoral mechanisms, and of the power of the ruling class. But we also urge an emphasis on extra-electoral strategies, since this is where the power of the working class truly resides.
Real power, for the working class, comes from organization and disruption — organization of unions and mass organization to bring the class into confrontations with the capitalists, and disruption to force the capitalists to make space for the working class organizations, if only for a time. We’ve seen how an elected anti-capitalist government without an organized working class will be overthrown by the state apparatus, undermined by right wing extremism and, in all events, discredited by its own weakness in the face of the capitalist world economy. A social democratic party that does not recognize the weakness of its position once in government is a danger to the working class, through incompetence if not betrayal.
It can be argued that voters in the US and around the world are as apt to vote against capitalists and against capitalism as at any point in the past 100 years. On the other hand, it can be well argued that the working class is at its weakest point in terms of organizational power, within that century and even longer. How did a willingness to be radical in national politics become so separate from the ability to act radically anywhere except at the ballot box?
On many occasions it has been suggested that bringing together the unions into a broad-based Labor Party is a good way to get an independent working class party, but unfortunately this kind of effort almost always gives control to the more conservative part of the labor bureaucracy. The continuing problem with the Labor Party idea, since the Second World War, is that it is inconceivable that the highly-paid officers of labor unions would be at all supportive of a break with the Democratic establishment, let alone the party. The labor unions’ bureaucratic chieftains have spent decades undermining the self-organization of the working class to maintain cooperation with the Democrats and capitalists; not to expect further sabotage (so long as they remain in office) would be criminally naive. Really, union bureaucrats can be expected to fight against a socialist or labor party quite openly. It would be nice to think that these powerful organizations could come to our side if given the right avenue, but that ignores the political problems that put the labor movement in its present desperate situation. Before the unions will ever support a socialist party, as they should, we will have to overthrow the existing bureaucracy and put in place working members with socialist politics. And this indicates for us a more comprehensive working class strategy than just a new way of contesting elections, but ultimately more powerful.
Winning socialism entails much more than persuading voters to hate capitalism; it requires building up the power of a class that can actually defeat the capitalists. Capitalists never stop attacking workers’ organizations and unions, even when these agree to support capitalist parties, as the labor bureaucrats have done for the Democrats. Capitalist unity is ensured not just by their control of the government and two parties, but by the financial and labor markets.
For workers, on the other hand, unity is the exception. A strike directly harms one capitalist firm, but strikes now routinely fail in isolation. A wave of strikes places many capitalists in jeopardy and gives other workers confidence, and a mass political strike across an entire city or country gives cover for many local strikes to succeed on economic grounds, and reinforce thereby workers’ organization. Capitalists are so strong that often we see very little progress until a sudden breakthrough, but a political vision is needed to take advantage of those opportunities.
(Workers’ unity is additionally difficult because the capitalist state seeks to outlaw any action that would undermine bourgeois power. The clear implication is that any attempt to build socialist organization on a mass scale must not confine itself to legal tactics. This is not a call for a reckless and irresponsible rush into illegality for its own sake, much less a summons to terrorism, a tactic which the socialist movement has always explicitly repudiated. Rather, it is simply a recognition that the most effective socialist tactics — wildcat strikes, solidarity strikes, some forms of speech and assembly — are illegal, and not to consider them strategically would be to confine the movement to impotent advocacy efforts. Really, socialists can expect pushback from the state even for expressly legal activity, since the state is all too aware of the threat they pose.)
Socialists have been fighting capitalists long enough, by now, to learn that the working class makes substantial gains when strong militant organization down to the level of the workplace has been united with political opposition to the capitalists as a class. The two develop together. That is one reason we need a party — it is a big risk to go on strike, or join a demonstration that could lead to arrest, and most people will not do it unless they see that it has a chance of victory. And for that chance of victory to be believable, we need an organization to guard against political concessions as well as personal corruption, to find out what works and to correct itself when tactics fail, and to overcome prejudices and nationalism among the workers, which is to say a socialist party.
Elections should, we submit, be only a small part of socialist strategy. The main focus of a socialist group should be on extra-electoral matters, of which elections are merely a barometer. Taking the opposite tack is ill-advised because socialist candidates can not meaningfully influence the behavior of a capitalist state through parliament. (In many areas, such as the United States, the prospect of a socialist victory in the legislature is also unlikely at the current moment.) Moreover, participation in the election campaign of candidate from a bourgeois party — as Ackerman and the Democratic Socialists of America sometimes urge — saps valuable resources from a socialist organization and, in the worst case, can lead to an effective lobotomy or even dissolution of the group.
There exist historical precedents that serve as warnings to those who would advocate electoral collaboration with a bourgeois party. Two examples come to mind: the Communist Party USA in the thirties and the New Communist Movement in the eighties. Both entered into a coalition with a certain faction of the Democratic Party — FDR in the former and Jesse Jackson in the latter — and neither recovered the organizational independence nor vitality that they once displayed. In agreeing to a multi-class alliance with the bourgeoisie, these leftist formations found themselves inevitably dominated by the capitalists. There is no reason to believe an attempt at a multi-class grouping today would yield a different result.
Those on the left who, contrary to our position, advocate devoting socialist resources to bourgeois electoral campaigns often contrast the so-called “purity” of positions such as ours to the necessity of a hard-nosed realism of working within the bourgeois apparatus in a time of left weakness. However, the framing of this debate as purity versus realism is miscast. The true terms of debate are survival of independent socialist organizations on the one hand and, on the other, being drawn into a black hole of bureaucratism — most likely, inside the Democratic Party and its affiliates — from which the left will never escape. Only in the former does the left have any chance of growing or, indeed, exercising any discernible influence at all. How can compromise with the working class’ enemies sincerely be called realism? It smells more like surrender.
Thus, the correct position on elections, however small elections might feature in a socialist strategy, is essential. Without organizational independence, including in elections, the left will be suffocated by the capitalists in a smothering embrace. If we belabor this point, it is only because many on the left seem all too eager to repeat the mistakes of the past.
If Marx was right, it will not be a socialist party that defeats capitalism, but the working class of the whole world — the party is simply a vehicle to support that effort. Socialist parties should treat their primary functions as the non-electoral ones, including keeping social movements and unions honest, coordinated and effective. Union organization, socialist education, electoral campaigns, demonstrations, and defense against attacks by the right are all interdependent because the cumulative power of working class organization in all these areas is what makes success possible.
Because we are talking about accumulating power for the working class, we are also talking about breaking down the power of the capitalists to resist the working class. This is why it is insufficient to launch an anti-capitalist movement, or an insurgency within a capitalist party, but we actually need to have working class independence to be successful. And because working class independence is difficult to maintain within capitalist society, it only ever survives when the working class has a socialist party to give structure, and democratic decision-making, to the many areas of struggle.
And so, we absolutely need a new party, and it can be socialist only by being working class first — a party that is not just against capitalist policies or even capitalism as an economic system, but that is for the workers exercising power from the workplaces on up, so that as a class it is actually in a position to defeat the capitalists as a class. Class independence can seem to be a vague principle if it is separated from its content, which is the struggle to weaken the capitalists, all factions included, by strengthening the working class in its ability to act and its consciousness. The past hundred years have taught us an immense amount about the real sources of oppositional power in society — mass movements, struggle in the workplace, extra-electoral strategy, as well as the potential and limits of electoralism and the quest for reforms — hard-won lessons we cannot afford to ignore. Once the working class is mobilized against the capitalists, this effort can then be best organized through a party structure. Indeed, there will likely be multiple party structures competing for the support of the working class, and we would argue that the only credible party would be democratic in its practices and revolutionary in its intent.
And so, we absolutely need a new party, and it can be socialist only by being working class first
But in any case, socialists who reject the Democrats, or can at least see that the working class is advancing through its rejection of the Democrats, share the common imperative of fighting against efforts to rejoin or improve the Democratic Party, and to argue against this strategy to every worker or socialist we encounter politically.
The main work of rebuilding confidence in working class independence will come through organizing class power, in particular by defending against the attacks of the state on immigrants, Muslims, women, LGBTQ, Blacks, Latinos, indigenous and all the oppressed, resisting the police state in the cities and organizing workplaces for unionization and strikes. We will be attacked unexpectedly, and without sufficient preparation, but we will also find our strength growing more rapidly and decisively than we could anticipate. This strength, in the U.S. and internationally, cannot be squandered on bourgeois electoral politics once again. Any time lost now will mean lives lost in more ways than one, so we cannot miss this opportunity to strike the Democratic party at its weak points, before it can regain its footing.
In the next two years, intense, institutionalized efforts will be directed at two related courses of action. The first, and most obvious, will be an effort to shore up the Democratic Party as a means of resisting Trump and the Republicans, first by opposition in Congress and at the local level, and then by attempting to win the 2018 election for the Democrats. The second, related effort will be an attempt to draw the Democratic Party to the left during this time, by promoting figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Keith Ellison. This second strategy, which Jacobin and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) support, entails also working on the first front, getting the Democrats a win in 2018 or 2020, because the future viability of the Democratic Party will be crucial to using it as a tool for ‘progressives’ against Trump and the Republicans who may follow.
And it seems reasonable to suppose that resistance to Trump will be intense, with the question being, how can this resistance build the foundations of longer term political strength? We cannot expect to found a party and have it taken seriously within two years, even if elections were the optimal point to resist governmental power, which they are not. We have to look at where resistance is likely to emerge first and build upon those successes. Workers on the job have been in a weak position for decades, with or without unions, and historical experience indicates that it is more likely that strikes and organization will develop as a consequence of mass political mobilizations than before. Unfortunately, unions will not be in a position to take the lead until radicalized members take control of the unions, and that depends on political developments.
In contrast to the unions, the greatest successes in mobilization during the past decade have been the struggles of immigrants, centered around May Day protests in the hundreds of thousands, Occupy, Standing Rock, and struggles against police brutality through Black Lives Matter (referring to the movements, rather than particular organizations). With the incoming administration and its open racism, we can expect both a great need for defense and a powerful response. What will it take to succeed? The Women’s March of January 21st demonstrated support in the millions for a potential organized movement to defend women, support which certainly exists in other areas, but successful and sustained organization will require a unification of different struggles, an escape from the conditions set by Democrats, and ultimately the intervention of labor in an organized fashion. The past decade has shown all too clearly how active resistance to the state can plunge into ineffectual nonprofit work, demoralizing campaigns for Democratic Party saviors, and finally passivity. Will this change if the movements work to shore up the ‘progressive’ wing of the Democrats once again?
At a certain point, any social movement finds that it needs a coherent organization to keep going through the ups and downs of outrage. As long as Democrats and their linked nonprofits sink their cash-laden tentacles into society, they will present a way to organize — that builds up the Democratic Party. But in 2016, we saw that the working class, by a huge margin, no longer had enough confidence in the Democrats to vote for them, because the Obama administration showed that only deportation, police brutality, unemployment, poverty and war would result. It is clear now that the Democrats have zero potential to organize a defense, and trying to fix a party that sabotages social movements at every turn will squander activists’ expended effort, if it doesn’t discourage involvement in the first place.
Nothing will succeed which does not weaken our opponents, the capitalists as represented by the Republicans and the Democrats, supported by the police and the state. The immigration struggle, women’s movement and Black Lives Matter have potential to do precisely this. Yet in capitalist society, the bourgeoisie is strong enough to defeat, repress, or buy off any coalition of opponents except the united working class. We will always be on the defensive against capitalists until workers find a way to use their power in the economy and combine it with their political organizations in the streets.
But as much as these struggles need a unifying organization of the working class, the possibility of a socialist party is, at this time, even more dependent on the growth and success of, for instance, Black Lives Matter and the fight against deportations. A socialist party centered around an electoral strategy rather than the most active struggles would be a political joke that would only fool middle class well-wishers. Even worse, that kind of party would lack the militancy of the most radical sectors of society, those who are fighting now.
(An embodiment of this type of failure is the Green Party, a left-capitalist party that, as its recount efforts have shown, is the last defender of the Democratic Party. The Greens didn’t do themselves any favors in the most recent presidential election by nominating a candidate who could not convincingly shake associations with 9/11 trutherism or anti-vaccination sympathies. Obviously, a support for the authority of science should be at the heart of any socialist agenda. We agree with Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed’s assessment (in their reply to Ackerman in Jacobin) that “[t]he long history of the Green Party’s dilettantish dabbling in national electoral campaigns shows that the results of their approach are essentially zero.” But their more fundamental criticism of the Greens, also ringing true, is that “[m]ulti-class parties are by their nature controlled and subservient to the dominant class.” Any illusion, unfortunately held by some socialists, that the Green Party can serve as an effective conduit for socialist interests should be abandoned. Workers have never held this illusion, and it is retrograde to try to introduce it once again.)
Meanwhile, if the working class as a whole failed to defend those most directly oppressed by the state, it would mean a very large loss of confidence and in actual ability to resist, in addition to devastation for the communities already most oppressed and exploited by capitalism. If the white portion of the working class is not active in this defense, it will be all the harder in the future for them to take the necessary steps to achieve solidarity. The weakness of the working class in the US owes in large part to repeated failures to unify against capitalist drives to impose unequal conditions on different parts of the working class, and all will suffer until this is rectified. Because conditions have reached a disastrous state throughout the country and the world, a failure to unify the working class behind those most directly targeted by the state would likely mean long term harm to future resistance.
If the working class as a whole failed to defend those most directly oppressed by the state, it would mean a very large loss of confidence and in actual ability to resist, in addition to devastation for the communities already most oppressed and exploited by capitalism.
That is why the absolute greatest urgency is now in defense, and why a working class party committed to that defense is not simply one desirable part of a broader left project, but an essential objective if we are to make any further progress. Leftist and socialist schemes that do not recognize this reality discredit themselves. But this is also the reason that a party cannot be created quickly, but has to grow as part of struggles in every city in the country. That means the initial steps to a party organization engaged in and led by the struggles of the oppressed, uniting workers throughout the country, must start immediately.
Even though the most important work for socialists now is to aid movements that do not yet identify themselves as socialist, and even though we cannot form a revolutionary bloc in time to do this work as a party, there remains a need to organize socialists in preparation for a party and against capitalist parties in the near term. This course of action must be taken for two reasons: first, we need to be able to present workers and activists in movements with an identifiable political entity that is opposed to the Democrats as well as minor capitalist parties like the Greens, advocating working class politics on the basis of revolutionary socialism.
And second, we need to be able to show people who would identify as socialist that a working class party is a credible option, so that in working for socialism they do not end up working for the DSA or other backers of capitalist parties. Depending on their situation and unfolding events, socialists will have different responsibilities in terms of social movements, and more work will be needed before we have the ability to collectively determine which tools are most useful, through the framework of a party. But if we do not work toward the goal of a party and in communication with the work being done around the country, we will not be able to assemble the experience to allow workers to finally succeed in independent struggle.
As such, we feel it is time for a broad discussion of how to present working class socialism as an organizational alternative, and then how to build a party on this basis. We would strongly argue that the only way to succeed will be through a party based on revolutionary Marxism, as exemplified by the left wing of the Second International up to 1914 and the healthy parts of the Third International. Programmatic debates and international questions are important, and should be the subject of serious discussion once we have made a clear stand on the fundamental need for a working class party independent of the capitalists.
Discussions to this effect have already begun on a small scale. However, we argue that they should be broadened, with the possibility of a meeting or conference, for all those interested. In addition to our area of immediate familiarity in New York, we have been able to identify organizations or circles including the Philly Socialists, NJ May 1, Silk City Socialists, the Communist League of Tampa, the Red Party, the Communist Labor Party in the Northwest, the Austin Socialist Collective, as well as Left Voice, which ought to be involved in these conversations. Hopefully other cities have their own circles that we will soon learn of, as well as interested individuals and members of different organizations.
We, and many of our readers, also have knowledge and experience with various left groups calling for revolution or Marxist politics, that have been established for more than a decade and have various programmatic differences. If they desire a revolutionary working class party, they should work for that goal among the large numbers of people now interested in socialism generally, and within the social movements. Various members of Socialist Alternative recently departed the group because they did not want to become uncritical promoters of the Sanders campaign, and similarly minded people should now be working for a more extensive, independent and democratic organization. We are not calling for a regroupment of the revolutionary vanguard based on uniformity or compromise on programmatic principles. Rather, the point is to organize the discussion of working class socialism as critically distinct from left approaches which do not advocate an independent party. Then we will be able to go into protests and unions with the agenda of building a working class party for social revolution.
Recently the left-communist publication Insurgent Notes (IN) hosted a public meeting regarding the topic of “Building a Radical Left in the Age of Trump.” The call for the meeting, despite some problematic aspects (such as a denunciation of “Stalinism-Trotskyism-Maoism” — who has ever heard of such a philosophy?), seemed promising in the main. Insurgent Notes’ plea for taking advantage of the current upswing in interest in left politics to reach across sectarian boundaries and organize politically is quite in line with our thinking:
We are convinced that the only way out of the terrible mess that this country and the world are in is the development of a mass radical movement—a movement that will challenge the fundamental bases and characteristics of capitalist society with a program for the radical reconstruction of this society under the direct democratic control of the immense majority of the people. Such a movement cannot restrict itself to participation in electoral campaigns of any kind…
We feel compelled to seize upon [the current] momentum to find out how we might contribute to the development of the movement that we so desperately need. We recognize that such a movement will be the result of the coming together of individuals with different experiences and political convictions. Towards that end, we also believe that we need to come up with new forms of political organization that can allow for the definition of fundamental agreements, provide space for ongoing productive conversations and enable us to act in concert as events unfold.
Indeed, the coming months will be crucial for the future development of the working class struggle and organization in the U.S. for at least the rest of the decade, with a crucial question being, will the working class finally find independence from the capitalist parties, and more effective means of resistance? It is our view that revolutionary Marxists, whether Left Communist or Leninist, need to show their seriousness at this juncture by taking the steps toward organizing a party, so that they can ultimately be relevant in the struggle of the working class.
Given the similarity of backgrounds and outlook, M.A.R.S. comrades felt compelled to attend Insurgent Notes’ meeting, and did so, eagerly anticipating a discussion of the conference’s main topic.
It is a sign of the urgency of these times that the meeting exceeded the organizers’ attendance expectations; roughly one hundred people were physically present, while dozens more joined remotely via the Internet. All present seemed to be serious adherents of the political far left. Many travelled from various corners of the country to engage in the IN event.
How disappointing, then, that the conference avoided the topic it was ostensibly called to address — “Building a Radical Left in the Age of Trump.” The presentations that were made, regardless of their other merits, notably dodged this crucial question. In the closing minutes, the organizers seemed to entertain perhaps taking steps towards some organizational effort, but this was done half-heartedly and belatedly.
In our opinion, this conference was a missed opportunity to discuss the question of organization that the present moment so urgently poses. We can wax poetic on what Trump means, whether or not his rhetoric matches up to concrete realities, what a growing cleavage within the bourgeoisie and the state represents, and so on and so forth. Yet, without pointing to ways of how the radical left can move forward, all of this amounts to just… analysis without any teeth.
We can no longer ignore what is directly in front of us any longer: building a party of the working class. The real need for a political direction has not fared well either through the submersion of reformists in the Democrats or the work of revolutionaries to perfect their theoretical systems. The RSDLP, the most promising historical antecedent for revolutionary socialist organization, was not a spontaneous creation of the workers, rather it was a patient and protracted effort of workers and their allies. Even if Insurgent Notes equivocates on the Bolsheviks, that hesitancy is due more to the Bolsheviks’ subsequent Stalinization than their rise, if anything. All serious revolutionaries must look to the past for guidance, and the Bolsheviks’ example of party organization, we would submit, is a model that is indispensable for the current moment.
The stories that many attendees related at the meeting confirm that the masses are starting to awaken to radical politics. For instance, one man from Arizona shared his experience of seeing Democrats who were, seemingly yesterday, fervent adherents of the Hillary Clinton devotee club Pantsuit Nation now reliably turn out for minimum wage struggles and immigration defense, chanting about destroying white supremacy. Will those of us with a commitment to socialism let this moment go to waste? Will we condemn these newly politicized individuals to slink back to the Democratic Party in disappointment and despair when we can’t offer them a reliable path forward?
Parties can provide a forum for democratic debate, coordinate action, and formulate a positive program; defensive protests can not achieve any of this. That is why we must take the next step towards party organization. Please get in contact with M.A.R.S. if you share with us this strategy to move the country closer to socialist revolution.
The past weeks have seen the revival of mass protest in the United States. Starting with the women’s march — setting a record for the most well-attended protest in U.S. history — and continuing to the protests against President Trump’s so-called “Muslim Ban,” the elemental rage felt towards the Trump administration has awakened the masses from their post-Occupy slumber. Some weeks, it feels as though decades go by.
The sheer numbers on display are superbly impressive. Furthermore, provoking disruptions at airports — and let us remember that airports are some of the most oppressive, militarized spaces in the U.S. — in combination with sympathetic workers, is a notable advance in tactics. When Occupy Oakland, arguably the most militant of the Occupy encampments, threatened to shut down an airport, it was rightly dismissed as an idle gesture. The anti-Trump protesters, however, showed that their potential for disrupting airports is not a warning that the authorities can afford to ignore. The protests at SFO even prevented any international flights from departing for a time. This is where a demonstration crosses into the application of disruptive power — and a civil protest for tax day begins to look like an unwelcome distraction.
As socialists, we celebrate these protests, which have sent a loud and clear message of opposition to the new administration’s obscene policies. We are encouraged by the large waves of people taking part in political street life, some for the first time. Surely if any progressive political thrust is to continue from these protests, the teeming throngs now marching in defiance of Trump must provide the new militants for the many struggles ahead. Socialists should heed the advice of those who caution that criticizing newly politicized individuals for their supposedly insufficient political education, or absence in previous struggles, is a recipe for sabotaging any chance at growing our ranks. However, this mandate must not be taken as a prohibition on critique of the movement, and especially of the hegemony of the capitalist politics foisted on us by self-declared movement leaders.
Comradely reflection and dialogue is an essential condition for the working class to actually improve its political capacities, and from that standpoint it must be said the protests have certain limitations. Since the revolutionary left’s adherents are so few in number (although growing by the day), the vast majority of those protesting must have liberal or Democratic Party sympathies. Although open nostalgia among protesters for Hillary Clinton has faded since the initial anti-Trump demonstrations in the immediate wake of the presidential election, many protesters continue to exhibit attitudes that will make them easy prey for an appeal from mainstream politicians. And indeed, the likes of Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren (who are using their institutional power to provide little to no pushback to Trump’s agenda) are showing up to address the forrest of signage, attempting to divert the movement into a defanged support group for the Democrats’ loyal opposition. They should be given an unwelcome reception.
At this point we must ask a crucial question: what happens when holding up a clever sign and repeatedly chanting “Tell me what democracy looks like / This is what democracy looks like!” along thousands of others doing the same is not sufficient to bring about our desired aims?
Mass protests, in and of themselves, can only accomplish so much. They do not put forward a constructive program for society; they lack the means to effectively coordinate action; they can not provide guidance to the movement; etc. When we express what we want in society, coordinate actions and incorporate our experiences into new practices, we are acting as a party, whether the program itself is that of anarchism, social democracy, or revolutionary socialism. Undefined politics tend to mean a lost opportunity, with the beneficiaries being the established NGO and Democratic Party apparatus.
And the politics demonstrated by the majority of those attending the last week’s protests can only take the movement so far. An affirmation of racial, ethnic, and national diversity, while heartwarming and healthy, will not result in a rollback of Trump’s executive orders. Neither will a commitment to the all-too-common shibboleths of love conquering hate and fear and incivility, or of unity triumphing over division. Politics is division by definition, and all the love and politeness in the world will not prevent the state from continuing to attempt to crush serious resistance. Rather, it is a successful defense of the oppressed in action that prevents us from losing ground.
Furthermore, appeals to patriotism or condemnations of the administration’s “un-American” actions both misunderstand the role of the state and forget the entirely American history of xenophobia-born exclusion. In fact, it does appear that Trump’s so-called “Muslim Ban” is likely constitutional, having plenty of legal precedents, but in any event this question has not yet been settled by the courts. As socialists we must always remember that patriotism is not a virtue but, contrariwise, a menace to liberty.
If mass protests are going to continue against Trump’s agenda — and we unhesitatingly advocate that they should — they must again advance in understanding and tactics to bring us toward our desired ends. The true power of protests comes from mass defiance of the law or militant action. Any protest that can be easily quelled by the police — who, make no mistake, design to thwart us at every turn — by cajoling or by force does not truly pose a threat to the status quo. The same can be said for protests that can be stage-directed by functionaries in or close to the Democratic Party. Effective mass protests recognize both of these adversaries (who often collaborate with each other) as the adversaries they are, and refuse to follow their orders. We have no doubt that Trump’s administration will continue to outrage the public with its heinous politics, providing the masses with many future opportunities to demonstrate in the streets.
As the protests, hopefully, expand in size and militancy, socialists should aim to achieve a number of objectives. The first, as is already happening, is to unite the protest movement with other oppositional tendencies to Trump’s rule — namely, unions and other existing social movements. Second, socialists should strengthen left organizations that are capable of providing an alternative leadership to the protest movement. In the short term, this means considering uniting with other workers’ organizations in a united front to lead the opposition to Trump.
In the long run, socialists should be contemplating if and how the struggles of the current moment could be channeled into a party that could convincingly champion the cause of the working class. Indeed, M.A.R.S. was founded to pursue the goal of a national organization of a revolutionary party based in the working class, where fragmented historical leftist tendencies had seemingly settled into fixed patterns. We are currently one of a number of many new socialist organizations nationwide that are presently in discussions regarding combining our forces (on a basis to be determined) such that the workers of the United States can have a significant nationwide socialist party to call their own.
At the time of writing, various news organizations are decrying a “constitutional crisis” which has befallen the country. We can interpret this jargon, in part, as meaning that liberal commentators are aghast that the terrible power and objectives of the capitalist state are insufficiently concealed from the public eye. It also signifies divisions erupting within the state itself, but workers should know better than to side with, for instance, the DOJ against the DHS, CIA against FBI, etc. — they are all equally part of the capitalist state. Workers should take Trump’s increasing encroachment on their liberties as an object lesson in how, unopposed, the capitalist state will ineluctably eat away at workers’ historic, hard-won gains. This points to the necessity of resistance and, in the longer term, instituting the kind of society where workers, not capitalists, call the shots.
Those protesters that are now chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” are more right than they know. Bourgeois democracy does estrange workers from the reins of power, and sends the forces of the state to kettle, pepper-spray and club them (or worse) when they attempt to make inroads on taking power. This is a deficiency of democracy, not a cause for its exaltation. As socialists, we prefer our age-old slogan: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries, unite!”
No one ought to deny that the activity of the Sanders campaign is getting people excited about politics, making them think about new ideas including socialism, encouraging them to test their strength, and all that. There’s no need to deny it, and besides it’s true. This is not the point. Just because a movement reflects a change for the better does not mean that it’s the best thing to do, or that the right thing is to join it. There are probably fewer than a thousand politically active socialists who could be called revolutionary in the US, and all of them together would have a very small impact on the Sanders campaign once they made the compromises needed to get into it. Anyway, the whole virtue of the campaign is that a bunch of formerly liberal or non-political people are radicalizing, obviously not because the organized left worked its magic.
If (when) the revolutionaries were strong enough to do something meaningful, we would want to be organizing outside electoral politics and leading actions that would push the struggle forward, not backing up a campaign and giving it socialist credentials it doesn’t deserve. It’s a healthy human tendency to want to be engaged in the things that excite the good intentions of others. Unfortunately, in a society that’s politically backward, immersing yourself in the political preferences of the day doesn’t do any good for using the insights that socialism has gained with such great difficulty and cost. If there’s any reason for having learned about socialism, it’s because it is profoundly imperative that we don’t, by omission, set the world up for another couple generations of massacres and exploitation.
While the mass of the population in this country is moving so rapidly to the left, the few socialists here are moving so rapidly to the right that they’re likely to rush right past each other. But it’s the tendency of middle class intellectuals (and that’s the overwhelming majority of US socialists) to become more and more conservative as time goes on, and it would not be at all a bad thing if the masses went straight past every would-be socialist who’s active right now and developed their own leadership. I’ve heard a lot of criticisms of the identity politics attitudes of radicalizing young people, and some of those criticisms are valid–but someone who came to those ideas and works them out in practice is going to be a thousand times more effective than someone who’s practice is to talk down to them.
To be fair, the socialist endorsement of Sanders makes its argument on the basis of pragmatism, and in fairness it can be assessed on those grounds. Sanders has a program that’s not awfully radical by Democratic standards, but it’s understood that even with a Democratic congress, not much of it would pass. Maybe his policy positions aren’t the point–but a socialist in the Sanders campaign would have to be presenting arguments from the standpoint of agreement about some set of reforms, and a shared hope in achieving it. Anything else is disingenuous.
The problem is, everyone knows it’s not going to work. The socialists who are supporting Sanders say, it will take a mass movement to overcome the Democratic establishment. Alright. Supposing that works and he gets the nomination, we can expect the Republicans will throw every kind of demagoguery at the ‘democratic socialist’ candidate (and that’s if they don’t go the Trump-thug route). So it’s gonna take a mass movement to win the general election. And then obviously it would be incredibly difficult to get Sander’s agenda (the super-optimistic, but still very limited one) through Congress. So that takes a mass movement too. If we need all these mass movements, why do we need to do it in the Democratic party? “Ah,” you say, “but the people are in the party, and that’s where one must go to engage with them.” But that’s saying the socialists are supposed to build this mass movement for social democracy within the Democratic party, because they lack the means to do it independently! It’s pretty obvious that any mass movement supporting Sanders would have to come from the thousands of his supporters who have no real acquaintance with Marxism, not Marxist educationalists in their dozens.
So if socialists are joining this Sanders mass movement, it’s to redirect a movement that is coalescing on its own. They must want to lead the Sanders supporters around by the nose–is what it sounds like. Everyone is going to catch what’s going on. Socialists who put themselves in the contradictory position of following mass opinion when it isn’t their own view eventually have to prove their sincerity by sticking with mass opinion, and defending it when it goes wrong. That’s the most common fate of socialists– to dissolve themselves in a movement that’s already deradicalizing, and then become its bureaucratic hacks.
The kind of pressure that it would take to get these Congressional Democrats to do anything for the working class would be half way to getting Republicans to do something for the working class. On a good day, Trump can sound about as likely to help the workers as a Clinton. Doesn’t mean either would. Anyway, it would be easier to scare those Congressional Dems if the protesters were threatening to break away from the party, and were already on the verge of withdrawing their votes, rather than registering new ones.
Of course, you can talk about replacing all those Democrats in Congress. But then why not talk about a new party? Why not argue for a new party from the outset, if that’s necessary? If that’s the logic of your argument, people are going to see that it’s not honest otherwise. Evidently, though, socialists have no choice but to compromise to get people’s ear, even if that happens to mean no independent workers party, and therefore not to do what we know to be necessary. But then these socialists are just leading people into a strategy of failure. And if you know anything about the history of the Democrats, leading people into such a failure is to knowingly deceive them. You only benefit from deceiving people if your interests are different from theirs.
If you come to people and say you’re a socialist, or say you’re are Marxist, then you’re representing a political standpoint. Marxism and socialism are political positions, as anyone can find out, that reject working within parties like the Democrats. It’s very well documented from all the leading figures, but to be as persuasive as possible, let’s just say it was the emphatic belief of both Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. People can easily find that out, and should (you would hope that they are learning things independently, wouldn’t you?). And at the end of the day, as a socialist, you must know that the Democratic party is a pathway to wretched failure and demoralization. Probably a good share of the socialists getting into the Sanders campaign would very much like to get supporters to read an old pamphlet that talks about the Democratic Party prisonhouse of social movements. Then what?
However these contacts come by the knowledge, they’ll find out that what the socialist has been saying is in contradiction to the ideology the socialist wants them to adopt. Now, they might agree with Bernie Sanders more than Karl Marx. That’s why socialists started trying to get in with the Sanders campaign in the first place. Well, the Sanders supporter is going to learn, based on the socialist’s actions A) that Sanders is the key political movement for the present, and the socialists have to come to him because they don’t have a better alternative B) socialists are weasels who will say whatever it takes and C) the ideas of Marxism aren’t good enough for even Marxists to stick with. Our socialists are going to look like cowards and manipulators.
Never mind whether that’s bad for your political networking. It is really very bad for socialism. The well known organizations have all done this a thousand times and cycled through any number of members, who are mostly cynical by now whether they’re inside or outside the organizations. We could spend an afternoon listing the instances of parties around the world that have gone down this path, and exactly how it all turned out. The short answer is, we ended up with a worldwide era of at least 30 years of incomparably weak struggle, that we’re just coming out of. Middle class Marxists in the US are not going to be the first to pay for their mistakes, so they can afford to show some responsibility in their actions.
Now, some people do think that Marx was wrong, and that we need reformist organizations that work within capitalism for the foreseeable future, and they think that sincerely. Appropriately, it’s called social democracy. Sanders doesn’t rise to that level, by the way, but you would expect social democrats to support him (if they could at least get him to quit the Democrats). If that’s your position, be a proud social democrat. Revolutionaries will work with you, just not in the Democratic party. Honesty is by far the most constructive standpoint, and the alternative is unendingly caustic.
All that said, there’s a reason Lenin and Marx preferred to be thought of as Communists. There are all kinds of socialists, and you can’t be responsible for the things that they say. The trouble is, Communism has also been dragged through the mud in the past hundred years. But I’m sure people still have a clearer idea of what Communism is and what it has to do with Marxism, than socialism and whatever it has to do with Sanders and Obama. If people are discussing socialism, there’s room to be a Communist. It’s time to say we’re Communists. Before the Maoists come back and walk all over it.
Concluded in the next installment.
Given the recent events, it’s imperative to comment on the Sanders campaign here in the US, but even more imperative to mention it in the context of the extraordinary disruption of the Trump rally in Chicago, and the prior protests in other cities. The protesters are courageous and doing exactly what ought to be done. For the moment, it may not be too controversial to say this on the left, but the Republicans and Democrats will make it controversial soon. No one has stopped Trump thus far except a crowd of angry people, without any money or television station to give them an edge. It’s just good it didn’t take any longer, and it should continue. Trump should be made to feel unable to speak anywhere, but more realistically in any city with a sizable enough population to surround and enter venues. If all goes well, he simply won’t campaign near a major city, and will be seen not to be welcome.
There’s room for clarification on this, but it’s fair to say that Trump and the Republican Party are not fascist, but that they certainly have fascistic tendencies and that they harbor fascists. If Trump’s strategy of polarization continues, it’s very likely to overtake him and disgorge an authentic fascist movement that could still vote Republican, but will act like brownshirts. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of their first actions are to try to break up Bernie Sanders rallies.
Why say that protesters should disrupt Trump rallies but not Trump supporters bash up Sander’s rallies? Well, first, it’s a bit too obvious, and it might be enough to say that Trump is a political threat that needs to be stopped, while Sanders is something different. Also, whatever protesters may do in a Trump rally is essentially a defensive action against an aggressive demagogue, surrounded by an aggressive crowd. There’s no question of protesters ever actually intimidating all the Trump supporters. They just embarrass Trump by exposing his appeal to the violence latent in his supporters. A Trump assault force, on the other hand could well intimidate a Sanders crowd, and probably will. He has openly encouraged exactly that. In fact, it is almost certainly being planned right now.
Finally, event security and cops are on the side of the Trump crowds, against the demonstrators. And they would ultimately be on the side of Trump fascists against Sanders crowds. For now, cops confine themselves to protecting fascists like the KKK when they have a march. But if fascists were able to provoke a brawl, or even just bring out defensive tactics by an anti-fascist crowd, the cops would make sure to make just as many arrests on the anti-fascist side, and could well go on a little police riot of their own against the antis. We know that in Greece the cops voted very disproportionately for Golden Dawn, a Nazi organization, and while cops here vary in their politics and may not be outright fascists, the whole essence of their profession aligns with suppressing popular protests and abetting white supremacists. There could be an order from above to intervene with prejudice, or to stand aside for fascists, and all sorts of things. The stronger the popular movement becomes, the more unrestrained the cops may become, as well as the fascists. And don’t expect Democratic mayors and police chiefs to behave lawfully either.
One more thing is that Trump will support his dogs. He defends them now, says they’re doing right, and encourages them. He’ll be happy to speak from the podium, directing his supporters exactly how to gang upon whoever’s protesting. Pretty soon he will start posturing about continuing the rallies regardless of the opposition. (That is, unless the protests make the rallies impossible; then we’re back to the police). If Trump supporters get arrested, he will complain, and defend their actions. He might pay court expenses. He might even condone his goons rallying against their incarceration and trial in an intimidating fashion. He would be glad to see his goons using force to help each other escape arrest and get back to the fighting.
Don’t expect any of that from Sanders. Sanders is going to be very reluctant to be associated with the use of violence, even in defense. And his supporters are not going to benefit from the actions of the police. More on that in a bit.
The essential point about Sanders is that he is a member of the Democratic party, the strongest capitalist organization left in this country, and socialists are registering as Democrats and persuading others to register as Democrats in order to vote for him. Very serious socialists have been thinking about this issue, and some have comprehensible reasons for supporting Sanders. We can see where they’re coming from. The reasons aren’t correct, and they would lead inevitably to socialists losing a critical opportunity. But we’ll come to that. The reality is that in this movement, as in most successful movements, the workers and oppressed are becoming more radical than the leftist intellectuals could have imagined, while the leftists themselves become more cautious than you’d ever have expected from their peacetime pronouncements.
More important than Sanders is the breakdown of the Republican Party, and the actions of the protesters in Chicago, St Louis, Kansas City, and many places to come. The mass movement outweighs Sanders and must grow beyond him, as quickly as possible. As socialists, we have to realize that the direct action of the masses against a capitalist party—represented by a billionaire, who draws behind him an incipient fascist movement—will do more to develop the politics of this country than any number of votes for Sanders. Socialists are very nearly the only people who are in a position to make this case, and yet so far they seem inclined to gently nudge the audience of the Sanders campaign and generally find ways to appeal to more voters. We need to be building the power and confidence of workers and the oppressed to act on their own behalf, not encourage them to alienate their power to an election and a candidate.
What I would ask those Sanders supporters is, if people who have not been politicized previously are mixing it up in Trump rallies as well as publicly debating socialism, why do convinced socialists need to extol the virtues of his candidacy? It’s happening anyway. The last thing politicized people should be spending energy on is organizing for Sanders. Sanders’ leadership of the movement must be challenged.
Can Sanders lead the anti-Trump movement? We know how the fascistic Trump supporters will begin to behave now that they have been openly challenged. Will Sanders back his supporters when they are attacked by Trump followers and use violence to defend themselves?
Will Sanders call on his supporters to shut down every Trump event in a city that is ready to act? Black Lives Matter can make such a call, or form a coalition for that purpose. What will Sanders say when the protesters are accused of rioting and violence? What will he say when Trump cries about his free speech rights? We know what to say any time Trump tries to speak, better than any candidate in a debate ever could. Will Sanders defend protestors who shut down Trump rallies when they are arrested? Will Sanders back up protestors who know they must physically stop Trump thugs? Someday soon, Trump will want to campaign in Philadelphia and New York. We should not just hold a protest, but make it impossible for him to campaign.
No one could expect Sanders to take the lead in developing an active protest movement. Hopefully, the protesters will do it themselves. Where will socialists stand—for the success of the Bernie campaign, or the development of militancy? The protest movement may mean that the Sanders campaign collapses, and that will be an opportunity. We have to be able to argue that the protests have greater potential than Sanders, and with conviction. What will socialists say to Bernie supporters who wonder about their leader, and whether he is holding them back? Supporters who wonder about where Bernie stands when, inevitably, he argues for peacefulness and respect? Will socialists tell them to forge ahead without Bernie? Will socialists encourage the protesters to challenge Bernie’s leadership? Form new organizations? If protesters want to shut down a Bernie rally when he fails to defend them against Trump, what side will we be on?
continued in Part II..