My two cents on rebuilding the US left


on rebuilding the US left

John Leslie

I was a member and dedicated builder of a small revolutionary socialist group (Socialist Action-US) for several years. I gave time and money, served as a branch organizer,  and truly believed that I was making a contribution to building “the party.”  Members of other organizations, often with similar positions on certain questions, were labeled “opponents” by our leadership.  United fronts (in the antiwar movement, for instance) are possible, but day-to-day cooperation with “opponent” groups was dismissed as a distraction from building “the”  party.

While I oppose the mindset that all other socialists are “opponents,” I do understand that the are concrete political differences between groups. I also understand that some essential differences, like on the class nature of the Soviet Union or of the Cuban revolution, remain.  However, it is possible, I think, to have differing views in a common organization. The point is to not let these differences blind us to the urgent tasks ahead .  For instance, regardless of how we perceive the Cuban state or the revolutionary process in Venezuela,  our main job as socialists in the “belly of the beast” is to keep the boot of imperialism off of the necks of the Cuban and Venezuelan people.

I left SA during a preconvention discussion last year. It became obvious to me that suggestions to improve organizational functioning and our mass work were unacceptable to certain central leaders. To be clear, I could have lived with losing a vote.  I could have lived with being in a minority.  However, the organizational method involved required seeing any criticism as a threat to the body that must be driven out.  Our views were distorted and we were met with condescension and behind the scenes personal attacks.

The struggle against sectarianism and self-isolation is an urgent task for  revolutionaries. Any tendency to isolate ourselves from the real movements of workers and the oppressed must be fought relentlessly.  The self-isolation and inbred character of the tiny, supposedly all-knowing, sect must be stamped out.  To build a mass revolutionary workers’ party requires that we not only fight the bosses, but that we combat both opportunism and smug ultraleftism.

What is necessary is the abandonment of the pretense that a small organization will somehow grow into a mass revolutionary party by itself.  I heard leaders of my former group repeat this foolishness more than once. This sort of smug self-assurance that somehow a small group is destined to become “the” vanguard of the US working class is magical thinking and has nothing to do with Marxism. Frankly, none of the organizations on the US left amount to more than the statistical equivalent of deck chairs on the Titanic.  

The process of building a party worthy of the name will be one of splits, alliances and fusions. It means that we have to become open to real unity in action and to comradely discussion of differences. We have to learn from the real on-the-ground experience of past efforts to build revolutionary parties — the pre-WWI Socialist Party, the Bolsheviks, the early CPUSA, the US Socialist Workers Party and the Black Panther Party, to name a few. We should set aside some space and time for dialog amongst activists from different traditions.

I think we also have to avoid the error of just giving up on the need for revolutionary organization. I believe the old expression, “an unorganized socialist is a contradiction in terms.”  To remain politicized and effective in the movements, a socialist activist has to be rooted in an organization that encourages collective discussion and collective action.  The class struggle won’t wait while we sort out the future of the left. There is no pause button.

What to do next?

US revolutionary James P. Cannon was fond of saying that the art of politics was knowing what to do next.  I don’t have all the answers, but want to take a stab at putting forward a few basic ideas.

unity in action  I think the notion of immediately building a united socialist party in the US is premature.  That said, there is the possibility, here and now, of cohering a united response to austerity. This would include, I think, a unified campaign to double the minimum wage, enact universal single-payer health care and demands jobs for all now.  This could also mean real cooperation in the trade unions to build rank and file power.

democratic organization  We have to abandon the notion that Leninism means we have to accept top-down organization and unity-in-action based on the suppression of minority viewpoints. An organization of hand raisers will never lead the workers’ movement much less a revolution.

political independence. Working people need their own political organization independent of the twin capitalist parties. No support for Democrats.  We need to build an alternative that fights in the streets and at the ballot box.  That said, we should avoid electoralism – seeing elections as an end in themselves. We should organize and support independent working class and socialist campaigns.

Anti-imperialism, internationalism and self determination  do not imply that we must accept the rule of dictators in the name of opposing the empire. Socialism requires the self-activity and self-organization of the oppressed and exploited. The transition to socialism must be based on real socialist democracy.




  1. Well stated, well said. Yes it is hard being a socialist today, let alone being a revolutionary socialist in America. I see too many good socialists today isolated in their own tiny party’s and sects, not talking to each other (as opposed to talking AT each other) and not realizing that they really agree on a lot more than they believe and at best they are playing in their own sand boxes – and so really ignorant about what is really going on in the real world, not aware of how social movements and social change are created and about what needs to be done NOW. We need to be talking, working, building practice and theory that reflects today’s challenges and realities (not necessary what happened in 1905 or 1917′ or 1934……). Leninism has to be rediscovered and a good balance of centralism and democratic practice put back in place. Too many groups that should be working together some how never get anything done and wonder why they never grow above 200-300 members. But at the same time are very critical about those groups that are moving ahead and growing today. We all need to take a step back and think why this is, is it really helpful and what we could do (together) to make the changes needed to move ahead? There is so much to do ahead of us and way to few os us to do it all (now)–let’s work on changing that now……

  2. Our tradition, the Trotskyist tradition, is a proud tradition that has much to recommend it. However, there are some glaring weaknesses that seem doomed to leave us unable to create the large (not even mass) organization that is essential. Although we have been taught that the programmatic always trumps the organizational, I think this dictum has been misunderstood. Program is too often confused with positions. Positions are transient, program is more long term.

    This distinction corresponds to a distinction in Roman Catholic liturgy. (Please do not put out an APB for the Materialist Police, this is just an analogy.) The Catholic Mass is divided into two main parts: The ordinary and the proper. The ordinary stays the same from one boring day to the next. The Kyrie, the Credo, etc. are always there, always invariable. The proper on the other hand is different from day to day or from season to season. A similar breakdown can apply to what revolutionary parties call program.

    The unchanging parts of the program, the ordinary, are all but non-negotiable. Let me list some that come to mind: The centrality of the working class in bringing about fundamental change. Total opposition to racism. Total opposition to sexism. The need to make a revolution in your own capitalist country.. No to class collaborationism (in the United States this means no support to the Democratic Party). No to supporting your own bourgeoisie in foreign affairs. And an absolute necessity: Total honesty with the membership and the working class. I’m sure a few things could be added, but I could live with this for a start.

    Now comes the proper, those things which are important to be sure, but are open to change and debate. Trotsky thought that even such an important question as the class nature of the Soviet Union would not preclude the Cannon wing of the SWP from being a minority inside a party with a Schactman majority. Surely, most day to day questions are less essential than this. Still, time and again Trotskyist groupings have split over lesser issues. There is behind this behavior a sectarian mindset that continues to haunt our progress.

    This is where the organizational question comes to the fore. The first organizational question is not a formal statue but a way of conducting business and a way of training new members. When differences are automatically equated with disloyalty, we are left with a membership that internalizes this lesson and becomes incapable of challenging the leadership on even the smallest point. Instead of a party of relentless iconoclasts, we are left with a party of trained seals. As Marxists we are enjoined to be critics of everything, and everything must include the organizations we are loyal to and seek to build. Unfortunately, the English “critic” doesn’t exactly match Marx’s German. By critic I am not arguing for a never ending, harping, unpro-ductive eternal kvetch, but rather an open, analytical approach to party politics. As always, unity in action must prevail.

    • David, Please take this in a comradely spirit. The internet makes possible the proliferation of tiny left groups with no real base in reality. This is exactly what I oppose and think is such a bad idea. A small nucleus of us could have jump-started a tiny grandiosely named “party” and it would have been a joke.

      Why not join and argue for your ideas inside a larger group? Spend some time building the movements of workers and oppressed people. Sink some roots. Statistically speaking, the small far-left groups in the US amount to little more than deck chairs on the Titanic.

      The left is littered with dozens of small groups with their wanna-be Trotskys, Lenins, Stalins and Maos. Few of them seem to have any concept of how a mass party is to be built.

      Those of us on the left need to get a grip on reality and bury the idea that a small isolated grouping can somehow grow into a mass party on its own- no matter how well written their program is. That’s magical thinking, not Marxism.

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