A new socialist movement has taken off in the U.S. with tens of thousands joining political organizations to fight against capitalism. Some of them understand socialism as more or less what Nordic European countries have, that is, not really socialism, but capitalism with a comprehensive welfare system. Yet many new socialists are actually fighting for a qualitatively different economic system, one in which there is no longer exploitation of the majority for the accumulation of wealth of the very few, a classless society. That is the meaning of socialism.
The question is, How do we get from A to B? What paths are there available for those of us fighting capitalism? Socialists have debated strategy for over 200 years, and history provides us with valuable lessons.
Toward the end of the 18th century, utopian socialists were convinced that sheer will and collective agreement was enough to begin building a socialist society. It was Marx and Engels who, based on the understanding that class struggle is the real engine of history, identified the working class as the leading agent in the fight for socialism, the revolutionary subject.
For socialists, the question of strategy is just as important as the question of program (what we fight for). This was evident in the writings of those Marxist theorists who were also party leaders, political militants waging themselves the war against capitalism. But as Perry Anderson notes, Marxism became increasingly divorced from political practice after the 1930s. The defeats of revolutions in Germany, Italy, and Spain pushed the discipline away from strategic debates. Marxism found asylum in academia, and the topics it analyzed mutated accordingly.
It is for this reason that the works by Marx and Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Gramsci, and Trotsky, among others, still contain so many valuable lessons — they represent the high point of Marxist strategic thought.
A new generation of socialists is having its first experiences with party politics, electoral campaigning, and state repression. It is important for young socialists to study, learn, and debate strategy because a failed strategy can squander decades of organizing, resources, and lives. I will discuss four strategies that, in one way or another, have some traction on the U.S. left today.
All socialists fight for reforms that benefit the working class and the poor. This is not where the difference lies between reformists and revolutionaries. Winning reforms strengthens the working class in morale and in organizing capacity (by winning the right to unionize, for example). Sometimes reforms take spheres of workers’ lives away from the market (for example, free universal health care) and substantially reduce competition among workers, thus increasing workers’ (bargaining) power. This ability to win reforms represents a real pressure toward reformism among workers, because “people do not make revolution eagerly any more than they do war. … A revolution takes place only when there is no other way out.”
For Marx and Engels, it became clear early on that elections would not bring about socialism, because the bourgeoisie was never going to give up its power without a fight. And the experience of every left electoral project since has only reinforced this lesson. For example, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was founded as a revolutionary socialist party. It was not until it grew into a massive organization that a “revisionist” wing led by Bernstein put into question the revolutionary road to socialism. As Walter Benjamin put it, “There is nothing which has corrupted the German working-class so much as the opinion that they were swimming with the tide.”
Electoralism is not the same as participation in elections. Revolutionary socialists in the Marxist tradition participate in elections, not only because they can be a good “gauge of the maturity of the working class,” as Engels argued. Elections can also allow socialists to agitate for working-class demands, help forge a party identity, articulate an anti-capitalist program, and bring awareness to workers of the power that stems from uniting under an independent political banner.
Reformists, however, see elections as the primary field of struggle, one in which the power of capital can be defeated. In the words of Jacobin’s Dustin Guastella, “Parties are not ends in themselves, but means to help us do two things: 1) elect candidates, and 2) enact legislation.” Here, the debate on strategy should not blur the difference in goals — the discussion of the means is inseparable from the debate about the end. The program of those social democrats using the “socialist” label, like Bernie Sanders is, in reality, welfare capitalism (or New Deal liberalism). In this case, means (strategy) and ends (program) are aligned: the electoralist strategy is consistent with the goal of reforming capitalism.
But let’s imagine an independent working-class party, with its own candidates, that tries to achieve socialism through elections and parliamentary reforms. Most likely, this political project will end in co-optation and accommodation.
That’s not to say that reformists deny or ignore the power of working-class mobilization. But the working-class membership and support they enjoy, the party’s influence in the unions, and its mobilizing capacity are thought of by reformists only as a pressure to force concessions and pass legislation in congress or through their elected officials. This use of popular mobilization to achieve reforms within the regime is just as far as reformists can go — it’s not in their strategic horizon to force a shift of power away from the state apparatus, which is, in turn, structurally tied to capitalist interests. In the reformist perspective, workers’ power is wielded only as a threat from outside the halls of power, a threat of disruption or even insurgency that never materializes.
There are examples in history, though, in which a coalition of parties put forward a socialist program and was supported by the majority of the electorate, setting the stage for a “democratic” road to socialism. In the absence of a revolutionary leadership, the outcome was not good. The most prominent historical example was the presidency of Salvador Allende in Chile for the Unidad Popular in the 1970s in Chile. The tragic outcome is well known.
There were other, lesser-known examples, such as the Finnish revolution of 1918, defeated because the Social Democratic Party of Finland stubbornly trusted the parliamentary process. Other attempts didn’t get as close to seizing power.
In the mid-1930s, the Communist Parties across the world embraced reformism. Following the directives of Moscow under Stalin, they took part in “popular front” governments with national bourgeois parties in Spain, France, and elsewhere.
The bottom line is that reformists believe the bourgeois state can be transformed to advance workers’ interests, or even seized and used to implement socialism. This illusion flies in the face of the whole history of the 20th century. Whenever crises or wars broke out —- two ills endemic to capitalism —- aspirations of slow progress hit a wall and reformists defended the capitalist order.
Electoralism is only the most common kind of reformism. But reformism takes other forms too: one of them is trade unionism, that is, the narrow focus on organizing at workplaces for economic demands, neglecting or downplaying the task of building a political organization and training revolutionary militants for the long haul. It is easy to fall into this reformist diversion, in particular for those of us who recognize the centrality of class struggle in the fight for socialism.
Another strand of reformism is Kautskyism — this is also referred to as “centrism,” since Kautsky represented the “center” of the prewar SPD, wavering between the party’s left and right wings. Kautsky’s legacy has been recovered from the dustbin of history in recent years. His main contribution to socialist strategy was to argue for what appeared to be a middle ground between reform and revolution. The capitalist class and its state are too powerful, he argued; therefore socialists must avoid any major battle against it. He advocated a “strategy of attrition,” whereby a proletarian party would slowly build its support, gradually eroding the power of the state until the time is ripe for a revolution. Only then, he contended, can we “switch” strategy and confront the state. But for Kautsky that moment never came. When revolutionary situations did arrive in Germany in 1918 and 1923, Kautsky ended up in bourgeois governments.
Under the banner of Kautskyism we find those who are sophisticated enough to acknowledge that reformism will not get us socialism, but who are not ready to take a revolutionary road. The cop-out is to indefinitely postpone the preparations for a revolutionary drive. A rupture with capitalism will be needed, but before that, they claim, we need to win a majority through elections.
Our strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach. For the foreseeable future, left strategy has to revolve around building a movement to pressure the state, gain power within it, change the institutional structure of capitalism, and erode the structural power of capital — rather than vaulting over it.
But a party that puts all its energy into elections, that builds a base and forms its cadre around a strategy of gradual reform, will inevitably find itself woefully unprepared when the moment comes for going on the offensive — taking power. Furthermore, it will also be incapable of defending the gains of the working class in times of crisis.
Conciliation and compromise are inscribed in the nature of reformism. The reformists’ strategic perspective leads them to seek agreement with the union bureaucracy (who, in turn, find common ground with the bosses) instead of fighting it relentlessly; to accommodate to the capitalist state (for example, shedding the radical “abolish the police” for the moderate and vague “defund the police,” even if it’s only for agitation); in brief, to capitulate to the pressures of the existing institutions and the state.
Revolutionaries, in contrast, are committed, resolute fighters with no interest in accommodation or compromise because our goal is precisely to undermine and finally supersede the institutions of power under capitalism. This does not imply an “ultraleft” approach that does not recognize when a compromise is imposed by an insurmountable disadvantage in the relation of forces. As Lenin put it,
Every proletarian — as a result of the conditions of the mass struggle and the acute intensification of class antagonisms he lives among — sees the difference between a compromise enforced by objective conditions (such as lack of strike funds, no outside support, starvation and exhaustion) — a compromise which in no way minimises the revolutionary devotion and readiness to carry on the struggle on the part of the workers who have agreed to such a compromise — and, on the other hand, a compromise by traitors who try to ascribe to objective causes their self-interest (strike-breakers also enter into “compromises”!), their cowardice, desire to toady to the capitalists, and readiness to yield to intimidation, sometimes to persuasion, sometimes to sops, and sometimes to flattery from the capitalists.
The difference between a reformist and a revolutionary party is qualitative. A revolutionary party is built around struggle; its militants are honed to the heat of class conflict, not electoral canvassing. Thus, to the chagrin of neokautskyists, a party cannot “switch” one strategy for another when the situation shifts.
In the words of Leon Trotsky,
One cannot lull the masses day in and day out with claptrap about a peaceful, painless transition to socialism and then at the first solid punch on the nose summon the masses to an armed response. This is the surest way of assisting reaction in the rout of the proletariat. To prove equal to a revolutionary repulse, the masses must be ideologically, organizationally and materially prepared for it. They must understand the inevitability of a sharpening of the class struggle and of its turning at a certain stage into a civil war.
Autonomism is based on the idea that to build socialism, we must start by organizing ourselves locally, through community endeavors, collective farming, mutual aid, and so on. The implication is that we can slowly expand this egalitarian experience to the rest of the country or even the world.
As with other currents on the Left, autonomism is not a homogenous tradition, and the characteristics I describe here might be more or less prominent in different geographic areas or organizations. Autonomist politics are typically anti-electoral. Not only do autonomists and anarchists think elections will not bring about socialism (a point in common with revolutionary Marxists), but they also reject outright any participation in the electoral arena. They are abstentionist.
Although the origins of autonomism are in the Marxist tradition, it has drifted so far away from it that it has more in common with anarchism than anything else. Anarchism is a broader tradition, which goes from individual, lifestyle efforts to collective endeavors like free schools or community gardening, to building radical currents in the labor movement.
Both anarchists and autonomists oppose or downplay the task of building a revolutionary party. The subject that will overthrow capitalism is “the movement,” which will not necessarily have a political leadership or a prominent political organization that plays a hegemonic role. Furthermore, in some of the most popular theoretical contributions in the autonomist tradition, the subject of change is no longer the working class but instead the generic “activist” — those who “resist,” in the words of John Holloway, or the “multitude” in the framework of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt (“Political action aimed at transformation and liberation today can only be conducted on the basis of the multitude”).[[Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004), 99.]]
In their framework, there is no point in trying to take power, because “power cannot be taken, for the simple reason that power is not possessed by any particular person or institution.”[[John Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 72.]] This patently Foucauldian notion of power is disproved by all past social revolutions. Furthermore, by eschewing the quest for the power of the state, it can only lead, at best, to an attempt at building socialism at the margins of the capitalist system, in certain pockets or redoubts of libertarian socialist rule.
A live example of this strategy is that of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. When it emerged in the 1990s, the Zapatista movement shook Latin America with a message of resistance and combativeness, and even today it represents a heroic struggle for the rights of indigenous peoples to land and self-determination. But the truth is that, after a few years, the Zapatistas no longer represented a threat to capitalism in Mexico or elsewhere. Their focus on building their own enclave from the ground up, with an interest in challenging the power of the Mexican state beyond the selva Lacandona, has led them into a dead end.
After the 2001 crisis in Argentina, hundreds of factories that went under were taken over by the workers, who resumed production under workers’ control. Some of them, like the ceramics factory Zanon in Neuquen, were only taken over after a protracted battle, including attempts at eviction and repression by the police. At the same time — and many workers in Zanon were aware of this — workers’ control under capitalism represented only an emergency, temporary solution. Autonomist authors, however, saw in these developments “revolutionary transformations,” they saw them as ends in themselves.[[Marina A. Sitrin, Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina (London: Zed Books, 2012).]] Yet, as economic units in a capitalist economy, worker-run factories are subject to competition and (self) exploitation in the market. They can be “trenches” in the struggle for workers’ power, but their mere existence as “islands” in a capitalist sea is self-contained and permanently under threat of disappearing.
Anarchists have historically fought the state, but in principle they don’t aim to take power — they would refuse to take it if it were hanging in front of them. While Marx and Engels proposed that socialists take power and build a new state that directly expresses the interests of the working class (what they called the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as opposed to the “dictatorship of capital”), the anarchist leader Bakunin recommended that “once the proletariat seizes the State, it must move at once to abolish [it].”
It has a good ring to it, but Bakunin’s plan for overthrowing capitalism shows great naivete. Every revolution is born with a counterrevolutionary camp. If triumphant, the revolutionaries must seize all resources at their disposal to fend off a backlash from mercenaries, right-wing militias, and other forces on the side of capital. Declaring it “abolished” doesn’t really mean the class war is over, and it does little to consolidate the victory against capitalist power.
Instructive here is the anarchists’ lack of clear strategy for taking power during the Spanish revolution. There was an objective necessity to centralize the struggle against the fascists. Yet the anarchist CNT, despite having overwhelming support from the working class, refused to take power. This meant leaving power in the hands of the bourgeoisie. But before long, CNT leaders joined the Communist Party and bourgeois parties in a “popular front” government in 1936. With this, it provided a left cover for a government that rolled back collectivization and set out to persecute and dismantle the most revolutionary battalions in the Republican camp. The popular front government led to the defeat of the revolution and the victory of fascism in Spain.
Recently, we’ve seen some small but advanced autonomist experiences, like the CHAZ/CHOP in Seattle or the CHE in New York City. These recent developments show that there is a strong push from socialists of different strands against police brutality, racism, and capitalism. They also show the potential of a militant, radicalized youth that fights the cops and stands its ground. At the same time, they demonstrate the limitations of autonomism itself. As acknowledged by one of the organizers of the CHAZ/CHOP in Seattle, many voices “questioned the focus on ‘autonomy,’ arguing that as African Americans they sought not autonomy from the institutions of the country, but integration, respect, and a dignified existence within.” Although expressed in a reformist perspective, this criticism points to autonomism’s intrinsic flaw: trying to “change the world without taking power,” to use Holloway’s words. Building autonomous “islands” in a capitalist sea will end neither capitalism nor all the oppressions that come with it.
Whereas an autonomist perspective stresses the potential of spontaneity and plays down the need for “conspiracy,” other revolutionary traditions bend the stick in the other direction. This is the case with the guerrilla strategy, in which a militarized “vanguard” is substituted for the broadest mobilization of the working masses. The idea that a small group of well-trained cadre can bring about socialism through an armed confrontation with the state may sound ludicrous in today’s context in the U.S. It is, to say the least, adventurist. But this strategy has had some traction in different moments in history: from Auguste Blanqui in the 19th century to the guerrilla movement in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. In this perspective, the revolutionary agent is no longer the working class but popular classes in general, and in particular poor peasants.
For guerrilla strategist Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the objective conditions for revolution were always there, and what was missing was the subjective conditions, that is, the organization of peasants and the poor for the revolution. In the “foco” strategy (foquismo), a guerrilla organization creates a focus of unrest, which encourages others to join from among the oppressed communities. Guerrilla strategy uses irregular warfare to fight state forces until it grows strong enough to engage in regular warfare and take over the entirety of the national territory.
Mao’s strategy of protracted war also revolves around the formation of a party-army. According to Mao, socialism was not on the horizon when he began the fight against the Japanese occupation. To defeat Japanese imperialism, Mao advocated a “bloc of the four classes” (peasantry, workers, urban petty bourgeoisie, and national bourgeoisie). This coincided with the Stalinist turn to the popular front in the mid-1930s, and it happened after Chiang Kai Sheik, the head of the Kuomintang (bourgeois national party), massacred the communists in Shanghai and Canton during the 1925–27 revolution. Nonetheless, Mao pursued a coalition with the Kuomintang because the fight against imperialism was “the primary contradiction.” We should point out that even this anti-imperialism was only half-way, since an alliance with Chiang Kai-Sheik meant an alliance with U.S. imperialism. After 1945, under enormous pressure from his peasant base (which had begun expropriating large landowners, against the CCP’s directives), Mao radicalized his policy and was forced to break with the Kuomintang, defeating Chiang Kai-Sheik in 1949.
The Cuban revolution, like the Chinese revolution, started as an anti-imperialist struggle for national liberation. The task of expropriating the capitalists was taken only after the revolutionary government faced a counterrevolutionary boycott from the national bourgeoisie in 1962. This points to a critical contradiction in these militarist strategies: they were able to defeat counterrevolutionary forces only when they abandoned the restrictions set by their own strategy of class collaboration and moved, under pressure from events and from the actions and aspirations of their own base, to infringe on capitalist property (expropriation of capital, expropriation and distribution of land).
It is important to highlight that workers’ councils have no place in a strategy of people’s war led by a party-army. The politics of class independence --- implicit in the workers’ councils’ strategy --- is antagonistic to the “bloc of four classes” (or any kind popular front). If the revolution is triumphant, the party-army transforms into a state-party, and the top-down nature of the party is transferred to the state.
This points to one of the main problems with this kind of strategy, as expressed by Matías Maiello and Emilio Albamonte: the subordination of the political to the military goals. The party-army that leads the revolution is necessarily top-down, like any military force. As mentioned above, there are no democratic bodies, no self-organization, no attempt to build direct democracy. Therefore, this strategy does not involve the mobilization and empowerment of the masses that the revolution is meant to serve. This problem has implications for the long run, because after power is taken (military goal), the working and peasant masses are simply not organized in the council-like bodies that would otherwise become the main organs of power. Hence, the blunted, bureaucratic character of the states in Cuba, China, and Vietnam after their revolutions, blocking or hampering the advance toward communism.
Maoism was enormously influential on the Left in the 1960s. Student activists in May ’68 in France, the Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers — all were influenced by Maoism in one way or another. For these radicalized socialists in industrialized countries, the strategy of a peasant party-army was obviously inapplicable to their sociopolitical context.
What has endured the most from Maoism is its anti-imperialist discourse, its indifference to democratic, self-organized bodies, and its populist bent. This populism is reflected in the identification of the “people” or the “masses” as the revolutionary subject and bearer of an innate revolutionary wisdom, combined with a profound disdain for intellectual or theoretical work. In the same stroke, the classical Marxist tenet of the hegemonic role of the working class and the importance of political independence is sacrificed for a permanent endeavor to strike an alliance among the “four classes,” including, notably, the national bourgeoisie. Today, this formally anti-imperialist, popular-front stance is reflected in the support of or alliances with national bourgeois parties in countries outside the U.S., despite their repressive policies toward labor and the left in their own countries (examples of this are the support for Bashar Al Assad in Syria, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, and the Chinese Communist Party in China).
From Engels on, there is a long history of socialists in the Marxist tradition who have studied war as a science. Capitalist societies are inherently shot through with the tension arising from class antagonism. As the working class grows in strength, capacity for mobilization, and political consciousness — through, for example, the emergence of mass socialist parties — the class struggle also develops. In non-revolutionary situations, some level of class struggle simmers at workplaces, emerges in the form of police killings — and the movement against it — or breaks into the open in massive strikes.
At some point, this constant tug-of-war takes the form of an actual civil war between classes. In fact, one of the cardinal components of a revolutionary situation is the “independent historical action of the masses,” or, in the words of Trotsky, “the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” The leadership of the working class (the political parties that exert an influence on it) plays a determinant role in those moments, and mistakes are paid with thousands of lives, decades of demoralization, and the retreat of the workers’ movement.
Revolutionary socialists in the Trotskyist tradition know that a revolutionary break with the current regime will be necessary to overcome capitalism — while at the same time recognizing the overwhelming repressive power of the state and the need for the most complete form of democracy. They propose what we can call the council (or soviet) strategy, a strategy that identifies the workers’ councils (soviet, in the Russian language) as a centerpiece in the fight against capitalism. This strategy is a continuation of the thought of Marx and Engels, in that it both acknowledges the central role of the working class and it proposes a revolutionary break with the capitalist state.
Lenin and Trotsky recognized in the soviets the perfect nexus between the revolutionary party and the masses.
The working class in every country has a layer of workers that are more resolute and have a better understanding of capitalism and a more developed political acumen — including, for example, the willingness to fight not only the boss but also sexism and racism. This “more advanced” sector of workers (traditionally referred to as the workers’ “vanguard”) is where a Leninist organization seeks to build itself. A party composed of those worker-activists who are leading the struggles, organizing their coworkers, and taking up their demands to indict the whole capitalist system, is a party that can play a leading role when a revolutionary situation comes. The insertion in strategic positions will allow the party, through its militants and sympathizers, to take hold of the economy’s main levers. At the right time, a general strike can put the bourgeoisie and its government on the ropes.
A Leninist (or “vanguard”) party is formed by professional revolutionaries — in the sense not of “paid” individuals but of people who dedicate their lives to the revolution — including workplace organizers, leaders of different struggles, people’s tribunes, intellectuals, and so on. The concept of the Leninist party is based on the idea that every party militant can influence dozens or even hundreds of workers. In this sense, it is different from the mass parties that are typical of social democracy (reformism), in which the members are mostly passive voters or people who mobilize in support of the party program. Since the center of gravity of a revolutionary party is not elections but class struggle, the emphasis is put in building a solid, tightly knit organization of working-class fighters committed to the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state — a party of combat.
This doesn’t mean that the party alone “makes” the revolution; this would be adventuristic, or a version of Blanquism. The theoretical legacy of Lenin and Trotsky necessarily involves winning over the majority of the working class for the revolution. The united front, a tactic that involves fighting side by side with other working-class organizations for concrete goals --- always maintaining political independence ---, is one of the main tools for revolutionaries to win over new sectors of workers. They do this by putting their politics to the test, engaging in a dialogue with vast numbers of fighting workers, showing the highest resoluteness in struggle, and trying to expose reformist and bureaucratic currents when they capitulate.
So how does a “vanguard party” manage to get majoritarian support for the revolution? Here is where the soviets, or workers’ councils, come in. In almost all revolutionary situations, bodies of self-organization spring up. These organs of workers’ power have taken different forms in different times. In them, workers discuss politics, such as their position toward the war, tactical questions regarding their own struggle, and even decisions over the production and distribution of goods. These bodies also organize workers’ self-defense. The soviets in Russia in 1905 and 1917 played this role, as did the councils in Italy in 1919–20 and in Germany in 1918 and 1923, and the cordones industriales in Chile in 1973. In these democratic bodies, the revolutionary party fights for leadership and puts forward its program and a plan of action.
At some point, an insurrection is planned, but this does not happen isolated from the mood of the masses. Trotsky describes the dialectical relationship between leadership and the masses, or between spontaneity and conspiracy as follows:
Conspiracy does not take the place of insurrection. An active minority of the proletariat, no matter how well organised, cannot seize the power regardless of the general conditions of the country. … [But] in order to conquer the power, the proletariat needs more than a spontaneous insurrection. It needs a suitable organisation, it needs a plan: it needs a conspiracy.
The overthrow of the capitalist state, in turn, is only the first step in the path to communism. The democratic workers’ government (not merely a capitalist government with a “labor party” in office) will replace the old rigged political machinery at the service of capital for a pyramidal structure of councils from regional to national, with members who are immediately recallable. Here, again, the soviets are a centerpiece in the revolutionary government. The new workers’ government would immediately “arm the proletariat, disarm the bourgeois counter-revolutionary organisations, bring control over production … and break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie” (as expressed in Theses on Tactics of the Comintern’s Fourth Congress).
The revolution takes place in the national arena, then develops internationally, and is finally complete only at the global level. This is one of the “permanent” dimensions of the revolution, which is combined with another one: all norms, institutions, and customs will necessarily undergo a radical, ceaseless transformation. The resolutions taken by the new government can only be temporary. As human relations are revolutionized, work, the family, love, and politics are also put into question, conceived anew, and resignified.
The ultimate goal is the slow withering away of the state, which is possible only in a society without classes. The horizon is a society of free producers, in which “the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished.’ It dies out.” [[Friedrich Engels, Anti-Duhring, chap. 24.]]