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A Defeatist Left Won’t Save Us: A Critique of DSA Emerge

A comradely critique to DSA Emerge’s statement on the party question.

Juan C

October 7, 2020
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DSA Emerge Caucus just published a statement on a topic that is crucial for the advancement of the U.S. left, titled “On the Party Question.” It is a welcome contribution by socialist activists who are taking part in the movement against racism and other important organizing in the New York City area. 

It comes at a crucial moment. Polarization in the United States has escalated dramatically in the past few years, with tens of thousands getting organized to fight for socialism while, simultaneously, far-right groups have grown and have been taking bolder actions, stoked by none other than the U.S. president. Only this year, we’ve witnessed the government sacrifice workers to Covid-19 for the sake of maintaining capitalist profits; we’ve seen masses of young people of color rock the streets, demanding an end to racist police brutality; and we’ve seen the bankruptcy of both parties of capital, one promising a return to “normalcy” and the other one threatening authoritarian solutions to the ills of the American people. In this context, building a political alternative that openly fights for socialism is needed more than ever.

The Emerge statement makes some good points. It states that the “party-like organization would be member-led-and-funded, governed by a democracy of its rank and file membership.” It expresses that “our desired political instrument is one that will be based in the working class.” These guiding principles are correct, and set the group apart from most of the anarchist and autonomist left. 

At the same time, the bulk of the statement is a litany of organizational proposals to facilitate member participation and internal democracy in the DSA. There is little to no political debate with other more centrist or moderate currents of the DSA such as Socialist Majority or the Jacobin wing, and no indication that Emerge sees coexistence with them in the same organization as at all problematic. The DSA’s “big-tent” character, over time, allowed moderate currents to grow in numbers through electoral work that further blurs the lines that separate the DSA from progressive Democrats. Today, when we need political clarity and the sharpest delimitation from the parties of capital, this issue is not taken up seriously. On the contrary, Emerge explicitly defends the “multi-tendency” organization of DSA — which includes progressive Democrats who do not share the same goals as socialists.  

In the span of a few paragraphs, DSA Emerge goes from recognizing that the “Democratic Party is unquestionably a major obstacle to class struggle in the U.S” and arguing for an independent party of the working class, to advocating that DSA continues running candidates as Democrats. (Where it says “our electoral work has put our own members in office,” should actually be read as “Democratic Party representatives that are also DSA members, or were supported by the DSA.”) 

Such an astonishing contradiction lies in the conception of socialist strategy that underpins DSA Emerge’s politics. This is where omissions speak louder than words and everything comes together in a political identity that is, above all, defeatist

The Non-Quest for Power

Emerge’s statement proposes to “root our organization in the various sectors of the working class, becoming active in workplaces, neighborhoods, and social movements.” But many questions go unanswered. Should we, as socialist militants, intervene in a certain way in these spaces and movements? What about the unions and the union bureaucracy? Does the multi-class character of some social movements present a challenge for socialists to intervene in a revolutionary way? There are no further specifications. While a generous reader might argue that these topics are “beyond the scope” of the statement, I think the decision not to set out positions on these critical issues is itself a political statement. It shows a disregard for some of the most important questions of socialist strategy and the pressure of an almost blind activism — no matter where, no matter how. 

This on-the-ground organizing, as all socialists would acknowledge, is essential for any political project, but always as part of a larger strategy for socialism. In fact, a major task for socialists is to “react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression … to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation [and] clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.” Lenin, in What Is To Be Done?, thus described what he called the tribune of the people. This role is impossible if there is no strategic compass to guide organizing in workplaces, intervention in the unions, and our participation in social movements and other on-the-ground activism.

For example, we need to recognize the importance of the labor movement as a strategic arena of intervention because of its political and economic leverage and given that unions are already the first line of defense for millions of workers to organize themselves, fight, and resist capital’s attack. And we need to recognize, as well, the existence of an entrenched bureaucracy at the head of all major U.S. unions. This layer of union officials is not interested in class struggle, much less in socialism, and it represents an obstacle at every turn to workers’ capacity for combat, their impetus to fight racism and sexism within their ranks, and their class consciousness. Unfortunately, the left — including many DSA labor activists — have failed to advance rank-and-file, revolutionary intervention in the unions and a relentless fight against the union bureaucracy. DSA Emerge’s statement says nothing about this. 

Our vision on how to fight racism and police brutality also informs the way we intervene in the movement. We understand the fight against racism and all kinds of oppression as a task in which all socialists must engage, here and now, and that is central to the strengthening of the working class. As Marxists we should fight for the unity of class struggle with the movement against racism, and for labor activists to take up this fight and push their unions to take action and support the movement, including by kicking cops out of our unions and expressing solidarity with those in struggle

The tendency toward activism conducted in an unsystematic way dovetails with the rejection of any perspective of fighting for power. “The party-like organization will thus not be a tool for governing, but for facilitating the self-government of the working class.” The problem with a conception in which the party is a sort of “facilitator” is that it does not raise the central issue: that the revolutionary party we aspire to build has to lead the struggle against the capitalist state and push for the self-organization of the working class as a central part of revolutionary strategy. 

The Emerge line of argument, instead, suggests an autonomist strategy: the idea that we can build spaces or redoubts of working-class self-government within the system, or at its margins, without the need to overthrow the capitalist state. This is a new iteration of John Holloway’s call to “change the world without taking power”1John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today (London: Pluto Press, 2005.) — part of the autonomist approach we have discussed in more in-depth previously. Suffice it to say here that the refusal to fight for power leaves only two possible outcomes: isolation and a drift into irrelevance, or cooptation by and coexistence with the capitalist state. 

So, whereas the statement opens by declaring DSA Emerge a “Marxist and Communist caucus,” the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state — a fundamental component of the Marxist and communist tradition — is conspicuously absent. 

Instead, the statement declares that “social change will rely on our ability to successfully organize pressure from outside the government.” In other words, for DSA Emerge, prospects for social change remain dependent on “pressure” exerted from outside the government. This is decidedly reformist: that change for the working class should come through pressure on the capitalist government establishes winning concessions as the main (or only) political goal. 

One thing is clear: power is, in Emerge’s strategy, conspicuously shunned. It is relinquished to the capitalists. DSA Emerge substitutes a vague conception of building “working-class power” for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state, but offers no perspective of workers taking control of all available resources and building a new society on a radically different foundation. There is no chance of an ultimate victory for the working class because the fight for power is abandoned before it starts. It is already a defeated Left. 

The Party Non-Question

In a political conjuncture dominated by the presidential elections, an ostensibly abstentionist position would have little traction. Socialists in the United States face a real challenge when it comes to explaining and putting forward the idea of an independent working-class party, one that articulates in the political arena — and not just electorally — workers’ interests and an anticapitalist program. 

As mentioned before, socialists should try to unite as much as possible the fight for everyday demands, the struggle for affordable housing, free healthcare and other bread-and-butter workers’ needs, with the long-term fight against capitalism. This should be an uncontroversial guiding principle. However, DSA Emerge does the exact opposite when it states that “our desired political instrument is one that will be based in the working class, [but when] engaging with elections or holding state office, we should pursue separate kinds of instruments, judged on a purely strategic and utilitarian basis.” This translates as follows: Let us have our organization to fight locally against evictions, at our workplaces, and on the streets against racism. But when it comes to elections and state power, we’ll keep using, voting, and building the Democratic Party. 

This splitting of two facets of political activity that are (and need always be) closely interrelated leads DSA Emerge down the path of the most narrow-minded reformism. Proof of this is the exaltation of Pink Tide government as “models” (sic) without a proper analysis of how those parties coopted social movements, crushed the dissident left, and gave up concessions in order to preserve a neo-extractivist pattern of capitalist accumulation. 

The Emerge statement correctly recognizes the abysmal record of European Labour, Socialist, and (Stalinist) Communist parties when they took office at the highest levels in bourgeois democracies. But it draws the wrong conclusion, and this is why DSA Emerge fails to recognize the true historical significance of Latin America’s Pink Tide governments. It is not that an independent working-class party makes no difference, or that one such party in the United States will be no different than the Democratic Party, as the statement suggests. An independent working-class party would dramatically change the U.S. political landscape! The problem of those parties and experiences is that rather than challenge capitalism as a system, they turned themselves into “left” managers of the capitalist state. When neoliberalism and austerity were the order of the day, they followed capital’s dictums, just as every other government. 

The conclusion of the “party question,” then, is a denial of the question itself. As the DSA keeps recruiting from electoral campaigns and several races have put DSA-Democratic Party candidates in office (most of whom are completely unaccountable to the DSA after taking office), the “right wing” of the DSA has grown stronger and has, at least partially, succeeded in tying the organization even more to the Democratic Party. The greatest challenge the DSA faces today is to sever any and all ties with the Democratic Party and build its own independent socialist organization. DSA Emerge’s position on this question — the mother of all questions “on the party” for the DSA today — is no different than that of the Jacobin wing, or the wing that merely seeks a realignment of the Democratic Party. The defeatism is not only vis-à-vis state power, but also vis-à-vis the fight for an independent working-class party.

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