Contribution by Jimena Vergara, Left Voice
Hello, My name is Jimena, and I am a member of Left Voice. I’m happy to be here with Aaron at the Socialism Conference. In this panel we are “Debating the Path to the Party: Revolutionaries and Reformist Organizations.”
In a recent article, Tempest’s Ashley Smith gives a comprehensive characterization of the current political situation in the U.S. and concludes that
the clock is ticking with multiple crises wrecking peoples’ lives. The Democrats have no solution to these but facelifts that preserve the system that causes them. The Republicans also have no solution but nationalist bigotry that will make everything worse. The Left must build an alternative to both, helping to lead fights for immediate reform while forging a new independent socialist party capable of leading a political and social revolution.
What I want to argue here, and what I believe is the main discussion today, is that, in the current political moment, there is a subjective space for a sector of the vanguard to break with the Democratic Party and to build a working-class organization that fights for socialism. Further, the call for an independent working-class party with a socialist perspective cannot be exclusively propagandistic. We must instead take real steps to build it. This is strongly connected to the next question: How can revolutionaries actually engage and win the hearts of hundreds of young people, workers, and students who are disillusioned with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and eager to embrace more radical ideas to forge a new socialist organization?
The great recession of 2008 inaugurated a new historical period marked by the crisis of neoliberalism. I’m not going to describe all the characteristics of this crisis. I just want to mention four main elements disrupting the imperialist world order that explain the complexity of the current historical period: (1) the decline of U.S. hegemony, increasingly challenged by other capitalist powers such as China and Russia; (2) the challenges faced by the capitalist economy, hard hit by the pandemic, which hasn’t recovered the rates of growth prior to 2008; (3) the new processes of class struggle in the U.S. and in countries like France, the United Kingdom, and Peru; and (4) the ongoing political crisis, or what Gramsci called the “organic crisis” of the bipartisan regime in America. While I’m not going to go into this, the political crisis has created changes in the ways of thinking and a questioning of the institutions of the bipartisan regime — both to the Left and to the Right.
These elements of disruption marked a shift in the relationship of the masses with the two great parties of imperialist capital — the Republicans and the Democrats. The Republicans and the establishment as a whole have been unable to contain Trump and, most importantly, Trumpism. The progressive Democrats have not managed to keep up with the hopes and dreams of the youth because they are integrated into the regime and Biden’s government.
These changes in the consciousness of the working class and the youth are also expressed on the Left in increasing numbers of young people seeing socialism as more favorable than capitalism and seeing that this system is destroying the planet.
It is in a post-2008 world that a new generation of young workers and students of all races was forged in the United States. A generation exhausted by student debt and the drudgery of precarious work. A generation that stands with Amazon and UPS workers and is passionate about unions. Workers and students fed up with racism and bigotry instinctively understand, perhaps more than the Left itself, that the fight against oppression, exploitation, and environmental devastation go hand in hand. Among this new labor generation, we’re seeing some sectors of workers — from Starbucks workers to teachers and more — demanding that their unions organize for more than just bread-and-butter demands and take up the fight against oppression.
Along with the material exhaustion of neoliberalism, the ideas of this new generation of workers and students allowed Bernie Sanders and the DSA to win the hearts of thousands of young people disillusioned with the Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, the Democrats continue their role as the graveyard of social movements, but not without difficulties. Growing sectors feel that the Democrats do not represent us and that this whole system is rigged against working-class people and people of color. At the Labor Notes conference last year, I met so many young people unionizing their workplaces who were socialists — many who were joining the DSA, whose massive, though dwindling numbers continue to highlight that there remains a “socialist phenomenon.” And it’s expressed in the almost 2,000 people at this conference.
And it is clear that any illusion in Biden to stop the Far Right or protect our rights was a lie: indeed, the crisis of neoliberalism makes a sector of the working class turn to Trumpism, and we are facing a very real threat of a mobilized Far Right in office and in the streets.
So in this context, I know Aaron and I agree on the need to build our own party and on the need to fight for revolution. But there is a question of how we get there. Aaron, in a 2021 article published in Tempest, describes what he calls four “approaches” to building a revolutionary organization.
The first approach is one where revolutionaries should give up building their own organization and dissolve into reformist formations.
A second one proposes focusing on base building divorced from politics in general and electoral politics in particular.
The third approach Aaron mentions is one where programmatic clarity is everything and where revolutionary organizations give more weight to that than to establishing connections with the vanguard. This approach rejects engaging with other socialist or reformist formations since they don’t have a revolutionary program.
I agree that these three strategies for building revolutionary organizations are dead ends.
The fourth trend, according to Aaron, would be Tempest’s approach, where
we do not believe that having and projecting firm revolutionary politics is in itself sufficient to our task. We have to have a perspective that connects revolutionaries organically with emerging struggles in all of their contradictions, and limits, and wins people to a project.
Aaron adds that
this entails a posture of non-sectarianism appropriate to our size and modesty (not about our goal or our militancy) but about the gap between the small numbers of revolutionaries and our task; and the recognition that, in terms of the existing revolutionary Left, there is not now a basis for getting everyone in a room together to talk about founding a new organization, though there is likely space for joint work on abortion rights, the environment, labor solidarity, and so on, that provides a basis to build upon.
We agree with Tempest that without politics toward emerging struggles and emerging political formations, it is impossible to engage with the vanguard at all. But for us, following Rosa Luxemburg’s position against Kautsky, revolutionary organizations must act in order to change the relation of forces between classes, to advance the consciousness of important sectors of the vanguard. And through this perspective we come to a disagreement with the assessment that there is no space to discuss a revolutionary program broadly and way beyond the boundaries of our own organizations.
We believe that this angle of posing the problem is incorrect because it separates the experience in the struggle — the struggle for reproductive rights, unions, etc. — from the task of politically organizing the vanguard, and for us both issues go hand in hand. The problem is that intervening in the struggle for the revolutionaries implies intervening with a program, a proposal, an alternative that establishes a bridge between the most heartfelt demands of the people, the most advanced ideas of the vanguard, and their anti-capitalist thoughts toward an increasing clash with the capitalist system, the bipartisan regime, and its institutions.
I believe that Tempest comrades are underestimating the potential of the vanguard and the potential of organizing that vanguard around a revolutionary program.
For us right now the vanguard is represented by the new phenomena within the labor movement, for example, the Starbucks workers who went on strike during Pride month claiming that “first Pride was a riot, this Pride is a strike”; workers who are building new unions; and a new generation of workers who are recognizing that the strike is a tool to achieve their demands. Many of them are realizing the importance of political organization. This vanguard includes BLM activists fighting police brutality and who embraced anti-capitalist ideas like abolishing the police or class independence such as the comrades of Detroit Will Breathe here, that put forward an extraordinary fight during the BLM uprising for self-organization and class independence and from whom we have learned a lot. It includes the sectors of the DSA that last Convention put up a fight advocating a clean break with the Democratic Party. It is also represented by many of the folks here at this conference who know the Democrats are a dead end and are seeking an alternative.
Now, we are not saying that all these people are revolutionary socialists. What we are saying is that in this political context of capitalist decay and of changes in the way of thinking, putting forward the need to build a working-class party that fights for socialism and actively inviting people to participate in building this project can be a way to engage with these new sectors with a revolutionary perspective.
This cannot be done by diluting our program or by trying to appeal to the vanguard of our class on the basis of mere organizational independence from capitalist parties. A recent series of articles between Tempest and Left Voice took up the question of the role of revolutionaries in reformist organizations like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. There, we argued that within broad left organizations or those that call themselves socialist but lack class independence, it is our task to build revolutionary poles to dialogue with the members of such formations to convince them of revolutionary positions. Whether we do that within those organizations or outside them is a tactical question. But what is important is not to lose sight of the fact that our goal is to build a revolutionary organization through political clashes and common experience in class struggle.
We are not saying either that the revolutionary Left today can change the general relation of forces. We are saying that the revolutionary Left can and must influence the vanguard and organize it politically with its own program, and that there is a basis to begin that process right now.
For us, the revolutionaries’ program is not written in stone, but arises from experience in class struggle and from the ideas of the vanguard in order to connect them with revolutionary conclusions. We at Left Voice, with great humility because we know we are a small organization learning from the complex American reality, have just published this manifesto. It is not a finished program cooked in a basement. It is the product of our experience in recent years, especially since 2016, and we want to discuss it with everyone who shares the perspective that the working class needs a party of its own.
But the content of what this party fights for is indispensable. With this manifesto we hope to establish a bridge between the concerns of the vanguard and our program. For example, the fight against the Far Right cannot rely only on defending our basic democratic rights, but must go hand in hand with an intransigent denunciation of American democracy and its reactionary institutions such as the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the Electoral College, which must be abolished. Faced with capitalist greed, we have to sow the seeds of the need to expropriate the big capitalists, which is the only way to guarantee public health for all. Faced with environmental catastrophe, we should expropriate and nationalize industrial production in the hands of the working class so that it can be organized, not to maximize profit, but to ensure the well-being of all those who inhabit this planet and to protect nature.
Contrary to what the DSA leadership believe, we don’t think the working class is a “masa de maniobra” (mass of maneuver) that is supposed to focus its attention on fighting for bread-and-butter demands while denying the importance of oppression and relating to broader politics by voting for the Democratic Party. Revolutionary politics subverts that perspective to the core and seeks to advance the consciousness of the working class in order to highlight, through propaganda, agitation, political experience, and class struggle, the opposing interests of the imperialist bourgeoisie on the one hand, and the working class and oppressed on the other.
I am very struck by how sectors of the Left create theories to separate production from social reproduction, base building from politics, exploitation from oppression, etc. It is very striking to me how we formulate theories to deny the transformative potential of the multiracial American working class, which must overcome its divisions of race, gender, and more to unify its interests and together fight the imperialist system anchored in the exploitation and oppression of millions.
We need a party that, with a common platform, fights U.S. imperialism; unites what the racist, patriarchal capitalist system has divided; and allows us to fight racism and oppression with the firepower of the working class, building for the overthrow of this system.
I want to invite Aaron and Tempest members to unite efforts. We do not believe that we have full agreement with the left organizations whom we address in our manifesto. For example, regarding the war in Ukraine we have a fundamental disagreement with Tempest. For us it is a proxy war between capitalist powers, and it is the way in which U.S. imperialism is preparing for further confrontations with Russia and China. NATO rearmament cannot be tolerated by the Left, and we must openly call for NATO troops to be moved out of Ukraine and Eastern Europe while at the same time denouncing the reactionary Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s imperialist aspirations. But discussing these differences is part of establishing the foundations of the program we need, in order to build a working-class party that fights for socialism. Instead of remaining in the comfort zone of our organizations, we should open the debate among not just the Left but the broader vanguard around what kind of party we need; we could even put forward a network that in the first instance would be a space for debate and when possible common action.
We are enormously optimistic that from the living experience of this generation forged in the pandemic and BLM lies the seeds of a new socialist organization that will throw off the yoke of the Democratic Party and find a way to the masses, politically organizing the vanguard to propose an alternative to neoliberalism. Otherwise, it will be Trumpism that takes advantage of this crisis. We are in a preparatory moment where the conditions of the imperialist world order are disrupted. It’s our task to prepare for the fights ahead and begin the discussions we need, in order to build our own political organization to face this head on.
Contribution by Aaron Amaral, Tempest
I want to thank the comrades from Left Voice for opening up what I hope is a productive space at the conference for this discussion and debate. While the debate generally is framed as one around how revolutionaries relate to reformist organizations — and I will reach these issues — there are a series of related points I want to make to frame this discussion.
- We should emphasize that this is a strategic debate. One of the things that means is that there are goals we share in common. What we are debating is how we get there. So the two groups agree about a number of things, some of which include that the system of capitalism is not going to be overcome by simply using the machinery of the existing capitalist state. That revolutionary break-throughs internationally will be an absolute necessity to overcome the power of capital and to begin to truly construct a socialist society.
This is not going to happen gradually through reforms won through the profoundly undemocratic system of governance which are the norm in capitalist democracies. And that revolutionary breakthroughs require revolutionary organization. And while I think that any revolutionary process that leads to a socialist transformation is almost certainly going to require revolutionary organizations, plural, when we talk about the revolutionary party what we are talking about is the vehicle for the leading layer, the so-called vanguard layer of fighters, militants of the working class and communities of the oppressed, who will lead the fight for working class self-emancipation, and— to paraphrase Marx and Engels — to construct a “real movement that abolishes the present state of things.”
I will come back to this issue of the working class vanguard and the revolutionary process, but it is important to state up front some of what i think are point of agreement. The debate is here how are fighting to achieve these ends.
- To talk about how we get there requires a brutally honest assessment of where we are now. In the U.S. context , in a country of over 330 million people, the number of people who share the starting point laid out above, the starting point which motivates this debate, is miniscule. There are very generously maybe 5,000 comrades in the U.S. who share the perspective of revolutionary Marxism and are somewhat organized and somewhat politically active (in organizations and movements). Admittedly, I am making up this number based on my thirty years in the organized revolutionary socialist left but even if that number is ten times as large, even 50,000 would represent about 2/ 100ths of 1 percent of the whole population. We are tiny.
This is not meant to be disheartening but it is meant to situate where we are starting from today.
- Of even greater significance is the question of the current state of the leading layer of the working class and oppressed. The so-called vanguard. And this question is not only one of size, but also of consciousness and confidence. British revolutionary socialist Duncan Hallas, as early as 1971, in an article entitled, “Towards a Revolutionary Party” wrote:
The events of the last 40 years largely isolated the revolutionary socialist tradition from the working classes of the West. The first problem is to reintegrate them… In human terms, an organised layer of thousands of workers, by hand and by brain, firmly rooted amongst their fellow workers and with a shared consciousness of the necessity for socialism and the way to achieve it, has to be created. Or rather it has to be recreated. For such a layer existed in the twenties in Britain and internationally. Its disintegration, initially by Stalinism and then by the complex interactions of Stalinism, Fascism and neo-reformism, reduced the authentic socialist tradition in the advanced capitalist countries to the status of a fringe belief. As it re-emerges from that status, old disputes take on new life.
Following Hallas, and other Marxist thinkers like Hal Draper and David McNally, in 2020, in the lead editorial launching our website (Tempestmag.org) we wrote:
The socialist movement in this country has not always been an outside, negligible force. For decades of the last century it was an integral part of working class communities, politics and struggle. It was the force which built the labor movement, which later helped support and sustain civil rights struggles, which ensured that the ruling class’s concessions of the New Deal era had to be made, and which opposed decades of bipartisan imperial policies. It was a relentless internationalism, and principled opposition to all forms of oppression, that made these and other victories possible.
The coerced separation of our movement from our class is a wound from the middle of the last century; yet it is a live wound, which makes itself felt broadly in our organizing and in our personal lives. We have been reminded of this wound as long as we can remember; every time we were forced to pledge allegiance to the imperial flag in our classrooms or in our union halls. We will not win lasting reforms, let alone the defeat of capitalism, until this damage is fully repaired.
This then is the framework from which we enter this debate and undergirds how we understand our project, how we need to think about building organization, and whether and how we relate to broader reformist forces.
The roots of this debate began with a polemical piece from LV comrade Nathanial Flakin in December 2022 entitled, “Broad Left Parties are a dead-end” and surprisingly (at least to us at the time) subtitled, a debate with Tempest, Flakin pretty radically misrepresents our position by way of seemingly arguing that revolutionaries should not participate in broader left formations. I encourage comrades to read both Flakin’s original piece and Andy Sernatinger’s response on behalf of Tempest on January 5, 2023. Whether purposefully or not — it does not really matter — this reads not like a strategic debate (about DSA, Syriza, Podemos, etc.) but a principled argument that revolutionary socialists should never be part of broader left formations. I will say something more in a minute about DSA (and will leave the longer assessments of Syriza, Podemos, The Brazilian Workers Party, and the Argentine FIT-U to the discussion). But there are three mistakes I will point to before returning to the question of DSA.
First, Flakin misrepresents or fudges Tempest position on broad parties as we have argued elsewhere and as we have put in practice mainly in DSA. Our position is consistent with almost the entire history of the practice of revolutionary Marxism, going back to the days of Comrades Karl and Friedrich, but especially relevant to the present circumstances (i.e. our small numbers and the relative strength of the working class vanguard). We will work with forces to our right in movements, in electoral formations, and even in the same organization — when and where that makes sense, so long as that work is in the service of the broader struggle for socialist emancipation. The decisions of when and where that make sense is always a strategic decision based on specific and concrete assessment of the state of the movement, the forces involved, etc. Yet, we believe and strongly defend the idea and practice of revolutionaries maintaining our own organizations (in whatever form) and our own methods for presenting explicitly revolutionary ideas, perspectives, strategies, etc. in this work.
In misrepresenting this position, Flakin is really engaged in a rhetorical trick. Using a caricature of an opponent’s position simply as a vehicle to assert your own. Jamaican born British Marxist, Stuart Hall, wrote an essay in 1983 that is very much worth reading and is entitled, “For a Marxism without Guarantees,” and is directed at the sterility of the Stalinist left of the 1980s. It is apropos here and he warns:
Frequently what is so disabling about the work of some marxist writers is that you know what is going to be said at the end before the investigation has begun, that the questions are phoney, that such writers are functioning on a closed terrain.
Third, Flakin runs through the experience of the revolutionaries in a variety of reformist organizations, including Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and the DSA in the U.S. while then counter-posing the Argentine Workers Left Front (FIT) as a strategic alternative. Again, I will come back to DSA and in passing the FIT. But Flakin specifically points to the end of the political process and dynamic, in which the reformist leadership of these organizations inevitably — wait for it — pursue reformist paths and fail to pursue the paths proposed by revolutionaries. Shocking [sarcasm]. Flakin seems to conclude that the fact of the defeats proves the strategic mistake of revolutionaries engaging with these formations for a time as members of these organizations.
Here there is an incredibly important lesson that many Marxist have pointed out that this fight we have engaged in for revolutionary socialist transformation is one marked by a series of defeats, and lessons from those defeats, until such a time as we actually win. To look at these efforts and reduce the experiences to the fact of their defeat, is a travesty of a Marxist approach. Quoting another British Marxist, Richard Seymour,
The history of the left is a history of defeats; it is a history of the vanquished. We gain our victories out of a dialectic of defeats — from the crushing of the Paris Commune to the birth of mass socialist parties; from the horror of 1914 to the electrifying revolution of 1917.
Understand, there is much to criticize and learn from in every one of the recent so-called broad party efforts. But they need to be understood in their specificity.
With regards to DSA, I am going to quote from a piece by Comrade Natalia Tylim entitled The Blush is Off the Rose from July 2023:
What was significant about this rise in membership in DSA was not purely numerical. Rather, it presented a particular window of political opportunity in which millions of people were in search of a break with politics as usual. Tempest maintains that it is correct for revolutionaries to be part of broader organizations while those windows exist. The whole point of politics and organization is to put them to work and make an impact. Of course, having a clear and core set of politics is necessary to build around in any revolutionary organization, but these politics can be strengthened and can convince previously unswayed activists when they are applied in the course of struggle and discussion
Tempest members maintain that participating in DSA and trying to take advantage of the opportunities that existed for the Left was the right thing to do. This remains the right orientation given the weakness of the revolutionary Left and the obstacle of the U.S. two-party system. But part of that orientation means understanding that those spaces are only windows of opportunity. Like all questions of organizational form and orientation, these aren’t questions of principle, but of concrete political moments. New political moments provide new possibilities. Revolutionaries have the chance to make our politics more broadly heard, understood, and implemented—but only if we remain open and ready to bring our politics with us into broader political spaces.
The U.S. socialist movement needs broad organizations, and revolutionaries need organization, as well.
There are two related points about political perspectives and organizational form that should be made here. First, to restate a point that comrade Luis Meiners made yesterday in another context: central to the Tempest project and our approach is taking very seriously the crisis of the revolutionary left of the last generation. In country after country since the global economic crisis of 2008, the organizations of the revolutionary left have failed and often collapsed not in the face of defeat and retreat — (in fact, many survived and thrived during the years of rising and triumphalist neoliberalism) — rather, the failure and collapse was precisely in the face of incredible opportunity and generational radicalization that marked the post-2008 period. These questions about how we relate to forces to our right, and our perspective on our own overall capacities and role, are essential to try and get right. Creating tiny organizations which mistake the Leninist organization form with the need for overly high degrees of ideological uniformity and the prime imperative of organizational reproduction has proven to be not fit to purpose. That approach may have the ability to recruit in the ones and twos, and may grow to a certain size and influence, but in their lack of flexibility and brittleness, in their revolving doors of membership they have proven incapable of meeting the moments of opportunity. And let me be 100% clear here: this is not about one organization, in one country, but about the experience of the revolutionary left intentionally over the last decade.
The second point I will make is a provocation to the whole of the Trotskyist tradition from which most of us come. In 1938, at the precipice of World War II, Trotsky wrote in the founding program of the Fourth International, that “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” There may be an argument, though I am not necessarily convinced, that such a position made sense in 1938. However, this idea today can be a poisonous to our approach as it risks skipping over the whole question of the level and degree of disorganization and depoliticization of the working class as a whole, and relatedly the weak state or absence of the working class vanguard in the advanced capitalist countries. When taken together with the incredibly small size of the existing revolutionary left, and our limited influence, we run an incredible risk of misreading our moment and defining our task as simply asserting leadership over the existing (or non-existing) working class vanguard.
To paraphrase David McNally notes, a substitution occurs — in which a small organization of dozens or hundreds starts to behave as if it can act as as the political leadership of organized vanguard of the working class. This is the micro-party model, in which a small, politically isolated group pretends to be the organized vanguard of the working class (perhaps in waiting for the masses). This confusion or substitution creates a fundamentally false perspective that exaggerates what the small group is — and deceives the small group as to what its tasks ought to be.
So I will conclude on the point of what are tasks are in the moment, and what I think defines the Tempest Collective. This is taken from our last Convention in 2021 (we are expecting to have our net early in 2024):
While necessary, we do not believe that having and projecting firm revolutionary politics is in itself sufficient to our task. We have to have a perspective that connects revolutionaries organically with emerging struggles in all of their contradictions, and limits, and wins people to a project.
This entails a posture of non-sectarianism appropriate to our size and modesty (not about our goal or our militancy) but about the gap between the small numbers of revolutionaries and our task; and the recognition that, in terms of the existing revolutionary Left, there is not now a basis for getting everyone in a room together to talk about founding a new organization, though there is likely space for joint work on abortion rights, the environment, labor solidarity, and so on, that provides a basis to build upon.
In this there are five critical and immediate tasks.
- Educate and cohere revolutionary cadre.
- Maintain and build socialist media that can sharply engage in propagandistic, agitational, and organizational efforts.
- Embed ourselves in areas of struggle — and likely struggle.
- Maintain flexibility to respond quickly to both evolving and episodic struggles, in the context of the compound crises we face.
- Build and rebuild both revolutionary organization and broader formations in which revolutionaries are strategically implanted.
This is about winning layers of people to both participation in the building of revolutionary organization and participation in the emergent centers of struggle.