“The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”
– Leon Trotsky, 1930
. . .
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.
. . .
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.