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Class Independence and the Broad Parties: A Response to Left Voice

As part of ongoing debates on the Left about building independent political parties, we are publishing the following response to Nathaniel Flakin by Andrew Sernatinger of Tempest.

Andrew Sernatinger

December 31, 2022
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In an essay published on Left Voice recently, Nathaniel Flakin takes up the broad left party concept, ultimately arguing (as the title suggests) that they “are a dead end.” It’s hardly the first time this argument has come up in Left Voice, but what’s different about this piece is that it’s branded as “a debate with Tempest.” The piece is constructed, first and foremost, as a polemic against Tempest. This would be perfectly fine, but it is customary to at least inform the other party if you wish to have a genuine debate. All the same, this does provide an opportunity to take up substantial questions about theory, strategy, and tactics, and discuss where we disagree and where that may be exaggerated for effect.

Where is the smoking gun?

Flakin’s article begins with its view of the problem: there’s a large audience for socialism in the United States right now, but there is no independent socialist party and “[t]he largest socialist organization in the United States, the DSA, campaigns for and runs candidates as part of a capitalist and imperialist party.” The piece does not elaborate on this set-up, and these three points (audience, absence, DSA being bad) are given off the cuff with no references or footnotes.

It moves from there onto the broad left party question, and more specifically Tempest’s approach to these broad party experiences. Flakin quotes one sentence from Tempest comrade Natalia Tylim, “We think it’s a mistake to reject with a single stroke the broad party experiences.” It then focuses on the transcript of a talk given by another Tempest member, “For [Aaron] Amaral, a “wholesale rejection” of “broad-party experiments over the last couple of decades” can only lead to “sterile propagandism.””

As a tactic, Flakin selectively quotes less than one full sentence to “gotcha!” Amaral’s position. Whereas the quote in full reads,

There is often a wholesale rejection of the varied socialist attempts to build broader formations, without taking account of the specific dynamics in different countries, the different approaches which marked these experiments, and the different stakes that came into play at different moments. While I agree that one clear lesson from these experiments is that revolutionaries need to maintain their own organized current in such left formations, the idea that broader organized formations are per se, everywhere and always, out of bounds is a mistake and often held in common by this third trend.

Neither Tylim nor Amaral make categorical arguments demanding support for broad left parties, as Flakin suggests. So, he attributes a position to Tempest with no evidence. He writes, “A ‘broad left party’ is ultimately a euphemism: it means a party uniting reformists and revolutionaries”. Except that this isn’t our position and Flakin must know that. This is evident by the fact that members of Tempest say almost nothing in the article that is ostensibly a debate with us. If there was a smoking gun, you think that Flakin would have found it.

And while there is a substantial portion of Flakin’s article devoted to SYRIZA and Podemos as evidence of why we should categorically reject broad formations, the immediate aim is the relationship of revolutionaries to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

The impression one would get reading this article with no other knowledge is that Tempest cheerleads the DSA, and this is because of our mistaken fidelity to broad left parties. Flakin lays out what the purported difference between Tempest and Left Voice when he writes:

If a neoreformist party is able to politicize and enthuse many thousands of young people, we — of course — agree that revolutionaries need to engage with them. This means fighting together for the rights of working-class and oppressed people, alongside members and even leaders of neoreformist parties. But this kind of unity in action does not require us to sign up for parties whose stated goal is to administer the capitalist state…We can say that the balance sheet of broad left parties has been dismal. Socialists should break with this failed strategy. We should not advocate unity with reformists in the form of broad left parties.

What I find particularly odd about this characterization is first, Tempest’s criticism of DSA is widely known, so much so that the “boss caucus” majority of DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC) believed that we were somehow behind every act of opposition the leadership faced (if only!). I do not see where Flakin could get the impression from our numerous articles on DSA (many of which have been cited by Left Voice writers in their pieces on DSA) that we are uncritical proponents of the organization.

But more to the point, members of Left Voice were also members of DSA – they just left the organization much sooner. Tatianna Cozzarelli, for instance, toured some DSA-adjacent podcasts circa 2018 and frequently introduced herself as being a member of the DSA. It would appear to contradict Flakin’s argument that revolutionaries should never become members of these formations. If anything, it seems that Left Voice made a similar calculation as Tempest comrades that it could be potentially useful to be part of DSA to win this new layer of socialists to revolutionary politics. Left Voice may have had a different set of criteria for when membership in DSA no longer served that aim. It would be useful to hear Left Voice’s account of when and why they made a change in policy.

Terms of a debate: independence

If Flakin’s article is mostly shadowboxing an imaginary opponent, and in practice the Tempest and Left Voice approaches to the DSA have been fairly similar, then what are we really debating? This comes down to class independence and its relationship to the development of a mass, revolutionary socialist left. The question of broad parties is related but subsidiary to that understanding.

Flakin represents the Left Voice position as one that draws a stark line: “We should not advocate unity with reformists in the form of broad left parties.” The conclusion Flakin draws categorically rejecting “broad parties” appears to be based on a particular conception of class independence and its relationship to reformism. Its admittedly a little hard to pin down because Flakin never defines “reformism.”

Reformism is presented as a monolith that is essentially the same everywhere at any time; it is presented as primarily an ideological phenomenon, intent on administering the capitalist state. This oversimplifies how objective relations produce reformist politics as we’ll see. But leaving that aside, the above definition really doesn’t accurately describe parties like Podemos and others. Flakin presents it this way to prepare his arguments: First, that reformism is the primary obstacle to socialism; and second, that class independence is synonymous with a revolutionary socialist program.

What Flakin is basically suggesting is that revolutionaries just need to raise the red flag and rally the class to it, even before the class itself has won political independence from the bourgeoisie. And because of this, Left Voice opposes or abstains from other efforts at independence that are not explicitly revolutionary. The model they propose seeks to export the experience of the FIT-U in Argentina, without regard to completely different conditions in the United States. This is the real sticking point.

Political Independence and Socialism

So, the debate here is about class independence. And if we put it like that, this isn’t really a new line of argument. For one, many of the so-called broad parties have been around since the 1980’s. But more generally this has been a recurring point of contention in the Marxist tradition.

Marx insisted that socialism had to be the real movement of the class and would develop in the course of struggle. Independence of the class, however strange it might appear at first, was critical in the development of class consciousness and the adoption of socialist aims en masse. He did not propose this in clean stages, though he emphasized that class consciousness developed rapidly when independence had been established. To try to get out in front of the class without basic independence would lead to sectist substitutionism. Soma Marik explains: 1 Marik, Soma. Revolutionary Democracy: Emancipation in Classical Marxism. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2018.

Marx’s concept of party building thus envisaged two alternative models. One was the creation of a broad-based labor party where independence was to be the minimum basis of unity. The other was that of a communist party to be built up when a significant section of the working class became aware of the necessity of communism and began adopting programmatic goals accordingly. (83)

Engels made this point more directly in a letter to Friedrich Sorge, when he advised about relating to sections of the workers movement internationally who were in the sway of ideas and organizations that were not Marxist:

The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party…That the first programme of this party is still confused and highly deficient…these are inevitable evils but also only transitory ones. The masses must have time and opportunity to develop and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement–no matter in what form so long as it is only their own movement–in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn wisdom by hurting themselves.

Participation in these formations were necessary for communists, Engels argued, because it would provide them with an important leadership position when the movement developed and inevitably split.

This view remained even after the question of reformism had come to the fore after the First World War and the split from the Second International. Lenin, in Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, starts by arguing that the experience of the Bolsheviks in Russia cannot simply be exported to other countries, and in following a Marxist method each country needs to take the general revolutionary aim and learn to apply it to the specific countries one operates in.

He spends the chapter on Britain confronting a position by Sylvia Pankhurst, when she puts out formulations that sounds quite like the arguments Flakin makes for Left Voice: “The Communist Party must not compromise…The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence of reformism inviolate, its mission is to lead the way, without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the communist revolution.”

Lenin responds by saying that the working class in Britain had not yet had the experience of these types of reformist leaders, which is a vital class experience for the class to arrive at the necessity for revolution.

Communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they should, from within parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdens defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill. To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone.

I’m with Lenin. His perspective saw the realization of political independence as splitting the bourgeois representatives and thus creating more favorable political conditions for revolutionaries when their adversaries were divided. Lenin was unable to comment on whether British communists should join the Labour Party directly because he did not have enough information to determine if that would be tactically advantageous. He does not rule it out as a matter of principle. Likewise, participation in governments is not conceived of for the purpose of administering the capitalist state, but instead for demonstrating the insufficiency of the existing order to deliver for the working class in the real struggles that would occur. Together this would build support for the communists on the road to revolution.

Perspectives on broad parties

What do we make of broad parties then? Tempest comrade Charlie Post gives an orientation in a 2012 article for Socialist Register, especially in the post-World War II period,

[t]he active disorganization of the “militant minority” or “workers’ vanguard”—the mass layer of worker leaders who struggled and organized independently of the forces of official reformism put limits on the ability of small groups of revolutionaries to transform their organizations into even small mass parties in the 1960s and 1970s. Combined with the collapse of both social-democracy and the Communist Parties as effective forces of reform, no less revolution, segments of the labor and social movements sought alternative forms of political representation and organization. This is the social-material basis for the emergence of these “broad left” parties, with all of their contradictions and limitations. Put another way, these “broad left” parties are responses to material changes and will emerge and grow independently of the subjective desires of the revolutionary left. 2Post, Charles. “What Is Left of Leninism? New European Parties in Historical Perspective.” Essay. In Socialist Register 2013: The Question of Strategy. Pontypool, Wales: The Merlin Press, 2013.

This departs from a classical Trotskyist position (which essentially sees the Stalinists and social democrats as the false leaders of the class to be supplanted by the true, Trotskyist class leaders) and shifts to an analysis of development of the class and the conditions that brought about the more recent broad parties. Broad parties then can appeal to a larger audience than revolutionaries could reach on their own and could embark on a new project of class independence.

The success and failures of these experiments have huge variations. This has to be understood in a context where we have very few examples of socialist parties that have made real, lasting breakthroughs. Because let’s be honest, we have a whole lot of defeats. The degree to which workers’ organizations have frayed in the last half century, and the ability of the bourgeoisie to reincorporate the base of the old institutional left into existing political parties, has created an uneven experience for those embarking on the broad party project The specifics of their programs and constituent forces depends on the context of each country.

Anticapitalistas launched Podemos and grew its audience and cadres, though ultimately the Iglesias group won control of the party. Bloco Esquerda in Portugal formed in response to a major defeat for abortion rights. The common cause between Fourth Internationalists, Maoists, and left social democrats was that there was a functional role their unity could play in contesting elections. Bloco has been able to serve as an important political formation in response to austerity and unemployment, organizing precarious workers.

The Ligue Communist Revolutionnaire (LCR) attempted to form a broader party, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), but could not convince other forces, such as the Trotskyist Lutte Ouvrier or the “left socialists”, to join them when they launched in 2009. The LCR dissolved itself to form the NPA and they ended up with a smaller “broad” formation than they started with as the LCR. Many LCR comrades deserted and went to the Front de Gauche, led by Mélenchon in competition with the NPA before he created La France Insoumise. The NPA was isolated, and its problem now is less that of combating opportunism than it is getting beyond sectarian in-fighting. Oddly, Left Voice describes this positively. The NPA is one example that has been important for Tempest: we should not liquidate revolutionary organization as we participate in broad formations.

The electoral efforts around Corbyn, Mélenchon, and Sanders don’t really conform to the broad party concept. None of these were launched by the far left, and the Sanders and Corbyn experiences have been much more constrained by their party affiliations. The appearance of these campaigns disoriented the far left of the mid 2010’s and accelerated crises in many revolutionary organizations, in no small part because revolutionaries had no guides for how to deal with a “democratic socialism” that grew rapidly.

Where we in Tempest really disagree with Left Voice comrades is that we don’t view the results of different projects in different countries at different times in the last forty years as foregone conclusions because of their organizational form. We openly criticize the DSA, and many of us now view that project as having run its course. But it presented an opportunity to advance the cause of political independence and train a militant layer, however imperfectly. At least until 2019, DSA was the place where tens of thousands of new activists were flocking to, initially with aspirations to break from the Democratic Party and to organize working class people. Those are goals we should welcome, and for a time there was a possibility that DSA could develop in a direction that was suited for the purpose. It took a kind of counter-revolution in the organization, which Tempest played a role in fighting ideologically and organizationally, to restore DSA back to its historic realignment position.

To say in hindsight that all these projects were simply failures can be used to dismiss anything. It creates an inevitability that fails to recognize the interests that competed as a process unfolded. And we gain no guide to action for the real mess of history when it happens.

Conclusions

Our position in Tempest is not “broad parties are good” as the inversion of Left Voice’s “broad parties are bad” – we’re open to formations depending on the circumstances. Many of the ‘broad parties’ appeared because of the deterioration of working-class organization and the capitulation of the old institutional left (communist and social democratic parties).

When they have momentum, when they house emerging struggles, these formations have potential to further class organization and independence, which revolutionaries depend on for the viability of our project. But they can just as easily lose that potential, by being captured by opportunists (as in Podemos and arguably in DSA) or by being a hothouse of left groups with no wider appeal.

The presence of “reformism” should not be the singular deterrent from participation in any formation. Reformism is the worldview of a distinct social layer that acts as a mediator between labor and capital – elected officials, the trade union bureaucracy, and movement organizations. The logic of reformism is about preserving existing institutions and reforms through legal/electoral means, even while most of those gains were won through extra-parliamentary mass movements. Revolutionaries, who also fight for reforms, may share similar goals with reformists, but the immediate differences will be our perspectives and our approaches to winning reforms.

Robert Brenner, in The Problem of Reformism, argues “if we want to attract people to a revolutionary-socialist banner and away from reformism, it will not generally be through outbidding reformists in terms of program. It will be through our theory—our understanding of the world —and, most important, through our method, our practice. What distinguishes reformism on a day-to-day basis is its political method and its theory, not its program.”

This requires that we understand where reformism comes from and the form it may take, and then understand how it operates and its limitations. Amaral’s statement, “the idea that organized formations are per se, everywhere and always, out of bounds is a mistake,” is an appeal to take seriously the conditions we operate in. This follows Lenin, who states,

The task is to learn to apply the general and basic principles of Communism to the peculiar relations between classes and parties, to the peculiar features of the objective development towards Communism which are characteristic of each country and which must be studied, discovered, divined.

For Tempest, we don’t view “Leninism” as an organizational form or program to emulate. That mythology hardly represents the actuality of Bolshevik practice or Lenin’s views, but comes from Zinoviev in the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.

When we bring this back to the United States, the Left Voice perspective is making exactly the kinds of impatient mistakes that Marxists have warned against for generations by demanding a form of political independence that wants to skip the real development of the class. When you pose this against DSA, which has consolidated in opposition to class independence and carries little social weight, it’s an easy punching bag. But if, say, trade unions made actual movement towards an independent political party, rejecting support of and participation in this labor party because its reformist would be disastrously short sighted. “The great thing,” Engels reminds us, “is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist…will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own.”

Notes

Notes
1 Marik, Soma. Revolutionary Democracy: Emancipation in Classical Marxism. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2018.
2 Post, Charles. “What Is Left of Leninism? New European Parties in Historical Perspective.” Essay. In Socialist Register 2013: The Question of Strategy. Pontypool, Wales: The Merlin Press, 2013.
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Andrew Sernatinger

Andrew Sernatinger is a labor activist in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and has written for New Politics, International Viewpoint, Jacobin, and In These Times.

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