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Cohering the Rebellions: For a Combat Party of the Working Class

Large sections of the socialist left — in venues like Jacobin — argue for channelling the ongoing rebellions against the capitalist state into electoralism and the Democratic Party. In the context of no-growth, predatory capitalism, this is utopian. We need instead a fighting, independent party of the working class to cohere the rebellions and to win power.

Ahmed Kanna

July 18, 2020
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The United States may not yet be a failed state, but it is well on its way. An op-ed in the July 5, 2020 Guardian states that only a little more than half of Americans now have jobs, the lowest figure in more than 70 years. At least 45 million are unemployed. With eviction protections and unemployment subsidies soon set to expire, and with one in five US people being renters, we are facing a deluge of homelessness. On July 16, there were over 75,000 new cases of Covid-19, a new record and up from 25,000 per day in mid-June. Over 140,000 have died so far. The federal U.S. government has moved on, but not before it made sure to contract out treatments and vaccine research to the health capitalist sector. The Gilead corporation will “develop” a treatment (not a vaccine) for which it will charge over $3,000 per patient. The government has, further, promised the pharmaceutical industry not to intervene on pricing for future treatments.

Bipartisan Predation

The Democratic Party is a non-entity, with its much-hyped left largely absent. The CARES Act and its extension, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, is a massive give-away to the corporations. Going both to the financial sector and — a novelty — non-financial corporations, the bailout is a no-strings attached gift of almost $4.6 trillion to the capitalist class, with a tiny fraction of that — about $600 billion — allocated for cash payments to workers and for social needs such as education. With absolutely no government oversight, capitalists are free to engage in a frenzy of share buybacks and dividend and executive pay increases. Robert Brenner explains that the policy of the U.S. state is now fully based upon a politics of “escalating plunder.” He writes that the two parties “have grasped the extent to which money making has been de-linked from profitable production, especially in a weak economy.” “Predation” he continues, has become “a precondition for production.” 

In this article, I try to answer the question of what kind of political organization workers and oppressed people need in order to fight against the intensifying barbarism of contemporary capitalism. I argue that, in the context of a no-growth capitalist economy characterized by increasingly predatory political interventions by the capitalist state, strategies of electoral socialism are utopian. Rebellions, not electoralism, get results. But to carry workers to power, rebellions must cohere into a democratic organization through which street and workplace fighters can connect, debate and decide strategy, and expand the collective power we enact in moments of rupture like the one we are currently experiencing. We need, in short, an organization that is best suited to what Lenin conceptualized as “the actuality of the revolution.” I review two prominent strategies currently being offered by the socialist Left in the United States and conclude by supporting a third strategy: for a class struggle, combat party of the working class, based upon a program for revolutionary socialism and a tactic of transitional demands.  

As Julia Camara writes,“the actuality of revolution carries with it a sense of anticipation, of an attempt to bring the revolution into present time and to bring present to the revolution. In this sense, the revolution functions like a regulating horizon for our present-day actions, if the revolution does not form part of our political horizon from the beginning, we are unlikely to approach it” (emphasis added). It is my contention that only an organization that embodies this sense of anticipation — of the fact that political time is not linear but unfolds in leaps and sudden eruptions of consciousness — is capable of meeting the needs and capacity of the rising working class movement for our own liberation. 

(Neo)realignment, or the “Party Surrogate” Tactic 

The first strategy that I consider is a revival of an old one. It is articulated most clearly by Jacobin writers like Dustin Guastella (Philly DSA), Jared Abbott (Boston DSA), and Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara. “Like it or not,” Guastella says, “if we run third party we will lose.” Although Guastella and his co-thinkers try to distance themselves from the term, they are basically supporters of the old strategy of Democratic Party realignment. This was originally pursued by American social democrats in the early 1960s, including the DSA founder Michael Harrington. The idea was to take over the DP, marginalize its capitalist elements, and turn it into a European-style social demcoratic party. Perhaps cognizant of the dubious past history of realignment — not only its resounding failures to reform the DP but also its anticommunism and imperialism — Guastella et al. say that what they are really for is a “party surrogate” rather than a realignment strategy. Guastella explains that the party surrogate organization would be “a membership-based, dues-funded, independent institution with a clear platform,” which  “can serve many of the functions of a traditional labor party: it can recruit and train candidates, work with unions in organizing drives, and provide mass political education.” However, the difference between the “party surrogate” concept and existing DP progressive caucuses and pressure groups is left unexplained. 

One of the problems with realignment, old and new, is that it commits socialists to moderate our  most radical, transformative demands and thereby hobbles our attempt to win over the most oppressed sections of the working class. A party, in Guastella’s narrow view, aims to do two things: to elect candidates and to pass progressive legislation. Progressive legislation won’t happen if you don’t get those candidates elected. To do this, you need to make sure that you always have a majoritarian appeal. But a majority of the electorate at any time, especially at times when class struggle is at a low ebb, will have a mixture of conservative and progressive ideas, of oppressive ways of being and of potentially liberating practices. A politics that seeks 50+1 percent of the vote will simply adapt to this mish mash. This in turn ends up reflecting the interests of the most privileged sectors of the working class. Socialists, by contrast, attempt to lead the working class to liberation from class and oppression by agitating around the principle that liberation of the whole class is premised on the liberation of all its sections, not just its most privileged layers. Seen in this way, realignment is not really a form of socialist politics. It is, rather, a negation of socialist politics. 

Furthermore, we still lack a mass revolutionary workers party, one of the necessary conditions, and from a Leninist perspective the most important one, for socialist transformation. We are still in conditions where a frontal assault on capitalist power is not feasible. Under such conditions, the strategy of the united front makes the most sense. The united front brings together reformist and revolutionary workers, “marching separately but striking together.” To concretize this, in the current moment, socialists should support and participate in, as well as politically intervene in through propaganda and agitation, the most radical anticapitalist struggles currently ongoing. Confusing the concept of a majority in all its spontaneity and mixed consciousness with a class-conscious mass movement, realignment prematurely intervenes as the socialist “leadership” of rebellions against the system. In doing so, it alienates potential (or actual) socialist comrades and working class leaders who prioritize anti-oppression struggles by attempting to moderate and channel their radical demands into the electoral labyrinth of the capitalist state, or worse, by telling them that they are unconsciously colluding with the capitalist class

The role of socialists in the united front is to win over the “vanguard,” which simply means the most dedicated and potentially revolutionary class fighters, from among the workers in the struggle against capitalism. The party, in turn, provides the arena for the collective education of worker-organizers to heighten ongoing struggles and to prepare for the coming revolutionary upheavals. Revolution may not usually be on the agenda — though as capitalism tumbles into increasingly intense and frequent crises, it may be more so now than in generations — but the socialist party prepares for when it is. Realignment fulfills none of these roles. 

The Dirty Break

Another influential approach on the left is the so-called dirty break strategy. Proponents of the dirty break differentiate themselves both from the “clean break” from the DP that revolutionary Marxists support and from the realignment wing of social democracy. They do so by arguing in favor of an independent workers party, but not in the near term. The dirty break wing is also well-represented in Jacobin, and its most articulate and intelligent exponents call themselves the DSA Bread and Roses caucus. They reject the realigners’ dismissal of a third party. However, the difference, in concrete terms, ends up being illusory. Bread and Roses intellectuals are, it is true, more sophisticated than Guastella, Kilpatrick, and the other realigners. In practice, however, the dirty break is just Marxist-flavored realignment.

In a recent article in The Call, the website of Bread and Roses, DSAers Jeremy Gong and Nick French clearly outline their caucus’s strategy. The article was written before the murder of George Floyd but published after the rebellion which it triggered. It focuses largely on the Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020, which they say partially fulfilled functions that mass workers parties have in other times and places. According to French and Gong, the Sanders campaigns were similar to mass parties in the following ways: first, they brought workers into “open struggle” with capitalists; second,  they were funded “entirely” by workers; and third, they advanced a national program of left reforms. In sum, according to the authors, these campaigns increased working class consciousness and organizing. 

The piece is a response to an article by Charles Post and Ashely Smith which argued that the Bernie campaigns were wasted efforts that co-opted socialists, bogging them down in the morass of Democratic Party politics. Failing to mention any of the objective conditions or mass uprisings — in particular Black Lives Matter — that paved the way for Sanders, French and Gong instead assert that the Bernie campaigns were the main inspiration for the radicalism of recent years. Further, they argue that these campaigns “give us a glimpse” of what a future workers party can do in a more permanent way. 

Published weeks into the rebellion against racist policing, the majority of the article is uncritical Sanders propaganda. Words like “inspired”, “fostered,” etc., which Sanders supposedly did to mass radicalization — while not entirely untrue — distort a more complicated reality. As Post and Smith point out in a response, militant trade unionists and Labor Notes were more important to the teachers’ strikes, and the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) was a product of United Electrical Workers organizing rather than an offshoot of Sanders 2020, as French and Gong claim. The undemocratic,  bureaucratic nature of the Sanders campaigns, his censorship of delegates who criticize Biden, his timidity on antiracism, his rejection of police abolition, and his support for increasing police pay — all of these go unmentioned by Bread and Roses thinkers.  

As Post and Smith correctly note, “there’s a big difference between ‘inspiring’ people to question the existing order, and the political and organizational tools and confidence necessary to build mass struggles that win.” French and Gong confuse an electoral campaign with a movement and working class party. First, attending a campaign rally and voting are passive; they’re not at all like participating in a strike or disruptive protest. Second, health workers movements and workers parties democratically decide tactics, strategy, and action plans, while decisions on tactics and strategy in the Sanders campaigns were top-down and undemocratic. And third, while it’s true that workers donated to Sanders and were excited by his (somewhat) anticapitalist rhetoric, these have been a feature of Democratic campaigns since the 1930s. These campaigns ended up demobilizing rather than increasing the independence and power of the working class. 

Ultimately, the dirty breakers fail to show how their strategy is not simply another form of realignment. They passingly acknowledge street rebellions and other struggles from below, but their engagement with antiracist movements is woefully lacking. Their vision, like that of the open realigners, is entirely circumscribed by electoralism and the capitalist state. Alongside the aforementioned  distortion of the Sanders campaigns, consider French and Gong’s use of language. Terms like “corporate Democrats” and “establishment Democrats” appear everywhere in their article. These phrases are also a common incantation among the Jacobin crowd more generally. The problem with the Democratic Party, however, is not that it has a “corporate wing.” The problem with the DP is that it is, thoroughly and irredeemably, a party of and for capitalists and imperialists. It is an enthusiastic supporter of the bipartisan predation and plunder that is the current U.S. state’s raison d’etre. The function of terms like “corporate” or “establishment Democrat” is therefore to obfuscate the reality of what the DP is and in turn to demobilize any eruptions of radicalism that go beyond what it is willing to tolerate. That the dirty breakers are so dependent on such terms, and on the theory that these terms underpin, implies nothing other than a version of realignment strategy.  

The Combat Party

The resounding failure of the U.S. state, at all levels, to meet the needs of the working class and oppressed has been exposed over the past four months. More than this, the Black-led rebellion has revealed that the capitalist state, and especially its police, is in its very essence the enemies of racialized and working people. The need for an independent organization of the working class to challenge the capitalist parties is more urgent than ever. We may currently be in a pre-revolutionary situation, opening possibilities for radical alternatives to the present status quo. Political strategies premised on the stability and legitimacy of the capitalist state are dead ends. Millions of radicalizing workers and young people are coming to the conclusion that the two U.S. capitalist parties are irredeemable, and they are searching for solutions and alternatives. 

An independent working-class party is needed now, not at some undetermined future date. This does not mean a party based on sectarian principles or theoretical agreement. If politics unfolds in leaps of struggle and consciousness, then what prevents these leaps from dissipating? The only strategy to channel waves of struggle into the capacity to open battle against the capitalist class is the workers party built through struggle, the activist or “combat” party, based on programmatic agreement on working-class independence and the necessity of socialist revolution. It is moments of rupture that reveal the need for such a party, and through which such a party can be built. Socialists can and must play a key role here, in that we can help cohere the struggles of workers and the oppressed.

Such a party would require, as the condition of membership, agreement with the substance of its program. The party would be open to different theoretical tendencies and would welcome democratic debate among them, under a regime of democratic centralist decision-making ensuring party democracy and accountability of leadership to the rank and file. It would draw a clear line on the Democratic Party: no running on its ballot and no endorsement of politicians who do so. The possibility of opportunism would be foreclosed by excluding from membership those who are unclear on the role and nature of the DP.  

Effectively bridging immediate everyday struggles and revolutionary politics has vexed the left for a long time. Here, the Trotskyist tradition provides helpful experience in the form of transitional demands. As its main day to day organizing labors, such a party would centralize the two-part work of immediate class struggle and anti-oppression struggles, on the one side, and of revolutionary political intervention on the other. First, its cadre would actively involve themselves in the spaces of everyday struggle: workplaces, neighborhoods, unions, and wherever the class confronts the capitalists. Such spaces would not be stipulated a priori, as it is impossible to tell beforehand where and over which issue such struggles will flare up. Marxists would in this way build networks and trust within these spaces by showing how effective we are as organizers. Second, cadre would politicize struggles through revolutionary intervention, specifically, through agitating on the need for class independence, combativity, and socialism. Through this work, Marxists can help their fellow workers develop transitional demands, which would have three basic characteristics:

  1. These demands cannot be met by the capitalist system.
  2. These demands have an organic connection to material reality; they cannot be utopian or too far ahead of where struggles are in terms of consciousness.
  3. These demands are configured around the “actuality of the revolution,” that is, they are always directed to increasing working class independence and militancy with the aim of realizing working-class power.

Toward elections, the strategy of the revolutionary party is diametrically opposed to that of the realigners and dirty breakers, who see their role as managing the capitalist state. The strategy advocated here sees “elections (as) a means to spread a working-class program, denounce the political regime, and bring onto the agenda issues that would otherwise go unnoticed.” All electoral activity must flow from the same logic as that of transitional demands: the independence and power of the working class and the development of the subjective factor that can overthrow capitalism.

With the pandemic continuing to rage out of control and the capitalist class entrenching its project of open plunder, with intensifying crises in unemployment and social reproduction (housing, schooling etc.) on the immediate horizon, we can expect soon a repeat of the mass rebellions of Summer 2020. All these developments unfold within, and are consequences of, a capitalist system mired in a long-term crisis of profitability and secular stagnation, to say nothing of the climate crisis. The question of what sort of organization can channel the masses’ righteous fury at this system into open and successful combat with the capitalist class must be seriously and clearly confronted now. The party of class struggle and socialist revolution is more urgently needed than ever. 

Ahmed Kanna is an educator in anthropology and ethnic studies based in Oakland, California and a member of Workers Voice/La Voz de los Trabajadores. 

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