on rebuilding the US left
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.