Towards a New Socialist Party
Continuing a series of articles on US politics and the left, guest contributors Hart Eagleburger and Jack Rusk argue that steps should be taken towards forming a new socialist party, given the opportunity of the present moment, which will grow out of real struggles of the working class.
January 25, 2017
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.
The Immediate Tasks
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.
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.
The First Step Towards A Party: A Convention
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.
The point is to organize the discussion of working class socialism as critically distinct from left approaches which do not advocate an independent party.
Credit Where It’s Due
Lastly, 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.