Ideas & Debates
IDEAS & DEBATES
The Party We Need: A Revolutionary Socialist Party
We are living in turbulent times. President Trump and the rise of the alt-right are not the only news. Thousands of people have become politically active in the past year, galvanized by the Bernie Sanders campaign and now joining organizations on the left, such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the International Socialist Organization, or Socialist Alternative.
May 14, 2017
Photo by Luigi Morris
Left Voice’s second issue, "Women on the Front Lines", is now available for purchase. For every magazine sold, we are donating $1 to a worker controlled factory in Argentina.
Ten years ago, both of these movements would have been thought to be out of the realm of possibility. These developments signal the potential for seismic shifts in the political scene and an opening for revolutionaries after years of retreat.
It is in this context that the question of the party as a political tool for advancing socialism inspires renewed interest. What is needed to undertake the fight for socialism and stand a chance to win?
Jacobin editor Seth Ackerman recently put forth a “blueprint” for a party that, although with some merits, misses the central questions that socialists should be discussing today.
We don’t need to start from zero
A party for the working class will have to draw from the experiences of past political organizations. The rise and drift of European social democratic parties and the degeneration of the Communist Parties (Spain, France, Germany, etc.) provide valuable lessons for today. The same can be said of the short yet rich experience of neo-reformist formations like Syriza and Podemos.
Every party has a program, whether explicit or not, and every party represents the interests of either the working class or the bourgeoisie. Capitalist parties such as the Democratic and Republican parties have slightly different programs, serving different but overlapping factions of the bourgeoisie. Although Sanders had a much more radical program than Hillary Clinton, his explicit goal was still to reform (rather than dismantle) capitalism, in effect, saving capitalism from itself.
For working class parties, the program is the party’s principal tool. At the same time, the program needs to be based on a strategy. While an electoral campaign or a strike against layoffs are tactics to win specific battles, the strategy is the sum of those battles toward the final goal, the overthrow of capitalism.
European social democratic parties (and the short-lived experience of the Socialist Party in the US) took the position that it was possible to achieve socialism by enacting reforms through parliamentary means. This meant running in elections and using seats in congress to present bills that would benefit workers. However, social democratic parties in Europe did not have a unified strategy for achieving socialism. Inevitably, the push for achievable demands (what they considered minimum program) was detached from the fight for socialism (ie., maximum program).
Workers of the world?
The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was the largest of these parties that ever existed. It grew exponentially around the turn of the twentieth century, received over four million votes in 1912, and by 1914 it had over one million active members.
On August 4, 1914, only a few days after pledging to resist the war and unite with workers in other countries in the fight for socialism, the SPD–as well as socialist parties in Austria-Hungary, France, Belgium and Britain–caved to nationalist pressures and supported their government’s war efforts in World War I. Shedding any pretense of internationalism, social democratic parties became accomplice to the capitalist class in a war waged by domestic workers against foreign workers for the benefit of their national bourgeoisies. Thus, the Second International crumbled.
During the remainder of the 20th century, social democratic parties fought for reforms within capitalism under the illusion that each reform was one more step toward socialism. However, the moment for socialist transformation never came. Late reformism eventually abandoned all expectations of ending capitalism and focused on the minimum program.
Overreliance on electoral politics is central to why social democracies have failed to bring us any closer to socialism.
By the end of the nineteenth century, a revisionist wing led by Eduard Bernstein claimed to discover a “civilized” form of government within parliamentary democracy that superseded the “despotism of class dictatorships.” Karl Kautsky later joined him in this strategic turn and crafted his “strategy of attrition,” which Rosa Luxemburg dubbed “Nothing-but-Parliamentarianism.”
According to Kautsky, the German working class could lead a warfare of attrition against the bourgeoisie, undermine its power, and gradually take over the state. The faith in bourgeois democracy and acceptance of parliamentarianism as the only means of advancing workers’ politics proved disastrous to the proletariat in key historical moments.
When revolutionary situations arose, socialist parties unwilling and unprepared to take power strove to constrain the working class to what was possible under capitalism. This happened in Germany in 1919 and 1923, during the Spanish Civil War in 1936-1939, and in Chile in 1973 when Salvador Allende refused to arm the working class to resist the counterrevolution. In all three examples, the final outcome was the bloody massacre of militant workers and revolutionaries.
Race to the Center
When neoliberalism became the order of the day, social democracies succumbed to its appeal. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party and the Workers’ Socialist Party of Spain (PSOE), among others, embraced the Third Way and implemented austerity policies demanded by capital. They morphed from alleged champions of workers’ interests into agents of finance capital and neoliberalism.
A scan-through of the parties that today make up the Socialist International feels like a flip-book horror story: François Hollande’s French Socialist Party, Enrique Peña Nieto’s PRI in Mexico, the UCR in Argentina—now in government, in coalition with President Mauricio Macri’s PRO Party. The DSA in the United States continues to be a full member of the Socialist International.
Social democracies were not the only parties that moved to the center. In the late 70s, Communist Parties in Europe–particularly the Spanish, Italian and French CPs–broke ties with the Soviet Union and officially shed the “dictatorship of the proletariat” from their program, although they had long given up any prospects of a socialist revolution. This movement, dubbed Eurocommunism, embraced parliamentarianism as the path to socialism in advanced countries. In practice, they abandoned both the perspective and the fight for socialism.
The Problem with Shortcuts
A few years after the 2008 economic crisis, a wave of uprisings shook the Arab world and mass protests sprang up in the US (Occupy Wall Street) and Europe. In the context of the bankruptcy of classical reformist parties, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain arose on the shoulders of strong anti-austerity movements.
Left parties and radical activism around the world turned their eyes toward these new formations with high hopes. It seemed that the left had once again returned to a position of leverage and influence after a long retreat.
Syriza took power in January 2015 with the promise of fighting the austerity imposed by the EU. For some, Syriza’s victory signaled the possibility that socialism could be achieved through elections. However, only a few months later, Tsipras’ government signed a draconian agreement with the EU–going against a referendum that rejected the deal with 60 percent of the vote, as well as privatizing the largest seaport (Piraeus), cutting pensions, and repressing protesters and workers who went on strike.
Podemos in Spain showed its true colors before even taking office at the national level: first by stripping the most radical demands from their program such as the call for a popular scrutiny of the foreign debt and replacing it with proposals for a restructuring of the debt; and second, by trying to form a coalition with the PSOE, which they had repeatedly denounced as part of the political caste. Podemos has governed five major cities (including Madrid and Barcelona) for almost two years and has provided no solutions to foreclosures, unemployment, and the energy crisis.
Both Syriza and Podemos emphasized the need for institutional mechanisms to supersede the struggle “in the streets.” The prescription was to vote and stay home. Podemos’ unremarkable performance in local governments and its eagerness to reach the presidential seat at any cost has revealed its political bankruptcy.
Without a mass implantation in the working class, these new reformist parties have focused their efforts on conquering the state to counter austerity. Socialism is not on the horizon. Furthermore, as the example of Syriza shows, the enduring economic downturn seriously undermines the ability of any government to grant concessions, and renders their social democratic program an anachronistic utopia.
A Party of Workers
The main source of conflict in our times is, as it has always been, the division of society in classes: one class is exploited while another reaps the profits, with some shades in between. Nothing defines our lives and interests as strongly as the social class we belong to. A party that welcomes workers as well as capitalists will always be controlled by capital. This is why workers need our own political tool to advance our interests.
The party we need is composed of, led by, and funded by workers. If a party relies on funds donated by liberal non-profits or big donors, it cannot even pretend to have working-class independence.
Social movement activists and liberals have far too often chosen to work with the Democratic Party–a full capitalist party–either by pushing for a progressive wing to emerge, taking over the party or by plainly voting Democrat as a lesser evil against Republicans. As other authors explain in this issue, this path is a dead end.
Following this pattern, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has consistently supported progressive figureheads within the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders was not the only one; they have also endorsed Keith Ellison for chair of the DNC, a lukewarm liberal whose program didn’t differ much from that of Tom Perez.
Socialist Alternative has committed the same mistake by endorsing local Democrats in Seattle, and more blatantly when they campaigned for Bernie Sanders in the primaries and registered people to the Democratic Party. As if this was not enough, members of Socialist Alternative attended the 2016 DNC in Philadelphia as delegates of the Democratic Party, only to lead a “walk out” after the votes were cast and Hillary had won the nomination. It is difficult to come back from such deep involvement with a capitalist party.
Once Bernie was out of the race, some of his supporters turned to the Greens looking for a progressive candidate. Socialist Alternative then switched gears to endorse Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
The ISO, too, has repeatedly thrown their support behind the Greens in an attempt to break the two-party system. They even ran a joint candidacy for the state of New York in 2014 (Howie Hawkins-Brian Jones).
In a 2013 editorial in the Socialist Worker, Paul D’Amato writes at length about the need to build a workers’ party, drawing from Marx and Engels’ writings. In the same article, however, he justifies support for Ralph Nader’s Green Party campaign in 2000–“an anti-corporate, if not anti-capitalist agenda”–as a means to “begin the process of building a broader left that is independent of the Democratic Party.” D’Amato makes no mention of the class character of the Green Party. In his and similar analyses, class delimitation is replaced by a “broader left” that is so broad as to include environmentally-friendly (“green”) entrepreneurs. (see below)
The height of contradiction comes when, after justifying the ISO’s support of the Greens, D’Amato quotes Engels’ appraisal of the New York Independent Labor Party candidacy of 1886: “In a country that has newly entered the movement, the first really crucial step is the formation by the workers of an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is distinguishable as a labor party” [emphasis added].
Paul D’Amato and the ISO decided to overlook the last few words.
Although there are some self-described socialists in their ranks, the Green Party USA is nothing but a middle-class party with a middle-class program: “Invest in green business (…) with an emphasis on small, locally-based companies,” reads Jill Stein’s 2016 platform. Despite passing an amendment (# 835, June 2016) rejecting the “capitalist system,” the same statement also condemns state ownership of the means of production, supports small enterprises, and puts forward communalism and the vague idea of decentralization of power as key tenets for social justice.
So if the Green Party is neither socialist nor a workers’ party, why is it even worth supporting? Is it really a step toward the formation of a revolutionary socialist party? Examples of past efforts show clearly that it is not. The Green Party serves as a diversion from working-class politics that will only bring confusion and disappointment among workers and socialist activists.
In the past year and half, Socialist Alternative has been repeating ad nauseam that we need a “Party of the 99%.” The slogan itself is problematic, since it blurs the class divide and opens the door for cross-class electoral coalitions. This generous 99% would leave out only the most concentrated bourgeoisie (those who make over $350,000 a year or who have accumulated over $8 million in wealth), but would include the petty bourgeoisie in its full, including some small capitalists. Even though this may sound like nit-picking, the story comes full circle when we see that it’s Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein who they’ve called to form this party of the 99%.
Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative have gained popularity since she took office as Seattle Councilmember, running as a socialist. The efforts to appeal to moderate voters and the eagerness to collaborate with progressive Democrats such as Bernie Sanders is the fastest way to squander the political capital that no other left organization has enjoyed in the past few years.
As basic as it may sound, refraining from participating in or endorsing any multi-class or plainly bourgeois electoral option would be a major step forward for the DSA, Socialist Alternative, and the ISO.
A Party of Combat
All the terrain gained by working-class organizations until the 1970s was reversed in the half century that came afterwards. We are in such a dire state that even the idea of a mass working-class reformist organization would be a progressive development. However, as the experience of social democracy shows, this is not enough to take on capitalism.
It is clear that capitalist democracy is deeply flawed. Multiple mechanisms skew the results of elections, suppress undesired political forces, and ultimately guarantee the rule of capital through its politicos in the government.
If Seth Ackerman’s article in Jacobin has one virtue, it is that it shows how undemocratic the US electoral system is.
“One lesson from this history is clear: We have to stop approaching our task as if the problems we face were akin to those faced by the organizers of, say, the British Labour Party in 1900 or Canada’s New Democratic Party in 1961. Instead, we need to realize that our situation is more like that facing opposition parties in soft-authoritarian systems, like those of Russia or Singapore.”
However, the plan he puts forward is nothing but electoral politics. Since he only conceives of politics in the narrow scope of an electoral strategy, his proposal ends up being yet another way of working with one foot in and one foot out of the Democratic Party.
Any collective effort in the fight for socialism needs to acknowledge the need for a revolutionary strategy.
Reformism has failed time and again and only revolutions have severed the chains of class exploitation. Despite its later bureaucratization and repressive drift, the Russian Revolution broke the power of the Czar and the bourgeoisie and provided immediate relief to millions of workers and peasants, distributed the land, paved the way for women’s emancipation and sexual freedom and established the most democratic system that has ever existed.
All this was possible only through the coordinated action of the working masses through bodies of self-organization: the soviets (or workers’ councils). These councils were crucial for asserting and channeling workers’ power and, very importantly, planning the insurrection. The Bolsheviks fought within the soviets and won the majority in them to a revolutionary strategy.
Of course, revolutionaries cannot make a revolution nor, despite Che Guevara’s theorizations, create the subjective conditions for it. Yet, a minority of militant workers can play an important role in a larger movement of workers and oppressed people by fostering the creation of united front organizations and advancing revolutionary politics.
The Fight for the United Front Begins Today
The soviets were nothing but united front organizations. As Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maiello convincingly argue, the same united front organizations that wage a defensive fight against the attacks of capital and the state will serve to organize the offensive when conditions are favorable.
A central task for a revolutionary party, then, is the development of these bodies of workers’ self-organization. And this can only be done if the party is part and parcel of the working class, if it manages to “merge itself with the broadest masses of the toilers.”
Furthermore, the ranks of the party must be filled with the workers who are politically most advanced, those who are active in the fights against bosses and the union bureaucracy, against racism and gender oppression, and who see the need to overthrow capitalism.
In this way, members of the party will have their character and politics forged in the struggle. Marxist propaganda and theory are the scaffolding, but the participation in class struggles is the necessary catalyst for cadre formation. Every strike, picket line, roadblock, every conflict serves as a school of war, and the party tempers its character in the heat of these struggles: it becomes a party of combat.
Although forgotten by most of the left, the fight against the union bureaucracy is of paramount importance today. The approach of most of the US left has been to try to secure positions in unions, oftentimes sharing a slate with the bureaucracy.
The union bureaucrats are agents of capital in the labor movement. They reproduce racism and sexism and systematically tame workers’ outrage to reach a compromise with the bosses. The union bureaucracy is the main hurdle workers need to fight to enjoy democracy in their organizations and advance their interests.
Since there is barely any discussion on union bureaucracy within the existing left, there is little understanding of what it is and how to fight it. An analysis of the union bureaucracy is beyond the scope of this article, but for now let’s say the leadership is bureaucratic if decisions are not taken democratically through assemblies, delegates are not recallable, and participation of the rank and file is weak; if the leadership does not fight relentlessly against racism, sexism, and national chauvinism; or if the union endorses Democrats (or any bourgeois party). Any of the above is an unequivocal sign that the union leadership is not advancing workers’ interests.
Left parties in the US should contest union leadership with oppositional caucuses instead of putting differences aside and joining them in a slate in order to secure a position.
Democratic Demands and Workers’ Hegemony
The members of a revolutionary party not only need to advance struggles for economic justice or workers’ demands. Individual racism and bigotry must be fought at the workplace and at every level. But most importantly, we need to build up a fight against these oppressions from a working-class perspective. The initiatives Strike Against Police Terror and No Cops in Our Unions, both advanced by Left Voice collaborators, are attempts to link workers’ power with the fight against racism.
The mobilization of women in the US and across the globe for reproductive rights, gender equality and against all kinds of gender violence has reopened the discussion about what kind of women’s movement we need.
It is not on moral grounds that we argue for putting up these struggles for democratic demands: they are a key element in a revolutionary strategy. Workers will lead the socialist revolution. But to do so, they need to show themselves as the class that will achieve emancipation for the rest: the poor and disenfranchised, students, the middle class; and, across all social strata, to the most oppressed. The fight for their demands strengthens working-class hegemony, that is, its capacity to wage struggles for the benefit of all.
At the same time, the party will only be truly revolutionary if it includes radical militants honed by struggles against racism, sexism, and other oppressions.
Dispute the Superstructure
This is not to say that electoral activity should be dismissed or belittled. Elections are not merely “a gauge of the maturity of the working class” as Marx and Engels famously put it, but are also an opportunity for socialists to spread their ideas, show their politics, and engage in conversations with those who are looking for answers to the social and economic needs of the working people.
Seats in congress, legislatures, or local councils should serve as a loudspeaker for workers’ demands and workers’ struggles, as a platform to denounce the abuses of the state and the bosses and an opportunity to indict capitalist democracy.
In 1920 the Second Congress of the Comintern stated bluntly what communists should make of the positions in a bourgeois parliament:
“[The] activity in parliament, which consists mainly in revolutionary agitation from the parliamentary platform, in unmasking opponents, in the ideological unification of the masses who still, particularly in backward areas, are captivated by democratic ideas, look towards the parliamentary platform, etc., should be totally and completely subordinated to the aims and tasks of the mass struggle outside parliament.”
In Argentina, the Left and Workers’ Front holds four seats in the national congress and dozens of seats in province legislatures and city councils. Apart from using these positions to present a large number of bills to advance workers’ interests—such as the emergency bill to ban layoffs during the economic downturn or the project to expropriate MadyGraf, a worker-controlled factory —the representatives of the Left Front have gained national attention for being in the front lines of workers’ struggles, enduring repression by the police and voicing a ruthless critique of bourgeois democracy and its parties. In a country where corruption is rampant and the pockets of elected officials are bloated (MPs make almost $10,000 USD per month) all Left Front MPs are committed to earning a teachers’ salary (now around $650 monthly) and donating the remainder to workers’ struggles, strike funds, and solidarity campaigns.
The Weight of the Dead
Setbacks in class struggle bring about a retrocession in the theory and politics of the working class and the left. Successive defeats under neoliberalism have taken a toll on left parties’ politics. The forty-plus years without revolutions all but erased the “hypothesis of revolution,” that is, the perspective that a revolution will ever take place. But revolutions have happened throughout history and will continue to happen. The challenge is to lead them to a socialist outcome.
It is difficult to overstate the counter-revolutionary role of Stalinism in the twentieth century. The purges inside the Soviet Union swiftly crushed all left opposition to Stalinist rule. By 1934, 70 percent of the members of the 1921 Central Committee had been either shot or arrested. The doctrine of “socialism in one country” devastated the communist left outside the USSR, dealt a death blow to the Spanish revolution, and foreclosed prospects for socialist revolutions elsewhere in the world.
Condemned to exile after leading the Russian Revolution, Trotsky wrote the most accurate and compelling critique of the bureaucratization of the USSR. Trotskyism remains today a necessary tool, in the words of Daniel Bensaïd, “to undo the blend between Stalinism and communism, free the living from the weight of the dead.”
In the age of Trump, attacks on workers and oppressed minorities are multiplying. Unity in the struggle against racism, sexism, and xenophobia is critical and can consolidate a working class resistance. The tactic of united front is as relevant as ever. The national response against the travel ban on Muslims and wide mobilization in support of immigrant workers are promising developments.
With the appalling rise of national chauvinism in the US and Europe, the left has to embrace the most radical anti-imperialist program, oppose military interventions abroad, denounce and oppose the looting of natural resources and oppression in Mexico and the rest of the world, and fight for the freedom of movement and migration for all people.
The revitalized women’s movement has reopened the debate among different currents of feminism. Revolutionaries must intervene in this movement and try to forge a left wing that fights for gender equality and for socialism. The Black movement against police brutality poses a similar challenge and opportunity for the left.
The fight against the union bureaucracy is essential to reclaiming working-class organizations for workers and their interests.
In the electoral arena, organizations that fight for socialism must start by advancing working-class politics, drawing sharp delimitations with the Democratic Party or any other organizations that are not exclusively based in the working class.
One hundred years after the Russian Revolution, it is worth rescuing its legacy from the ashes of Stalinism, opportunism and oblivion, and rebuild a revolutionary party for socialism.
1. Ackerman S., “A Blueprint for a New Party,” Jacobin N23, Fall 2016.
2. See articles by Kwon & Goldman and by Rusk and Eagleburger in Left Voice Magazine #2.
3. D’Amato P., “Independent of the Political Status Quo”, Socialist Worker, Nov 1, 2013
4. Albamonte E, Maiello M, Gramsci and Trotsky. Strategy for the revolution in the West, Left Voice, 2016.
5. Lenin, Left wing communism, an infantile disorder. International Publishers, New York (p. 10)
6. This is the meaning of vanguard, as traditionally used by communists. The term, however, has been extensively misused, particularly by small groups that claim to be “the revolutionary party” but had no real impact on reality, and don’t bother to test their claims in any real struggle.
7. Ferre JC, “United Front and the fight against the union bureaucracy”, Left Voice, September 6, 2016.
8. Visit leftvoice.org for more information.
9. See the back of this issue for more information.
10. Bensaïd D., Les Trotskysmes, Ed. Presses Universitaires de France, 2002.
This article was originally published in Left Voice print edition #2, Spring 2017