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The Revolution Will Not Be Localized

Mutual aid and other forms of local organizing are important, but can never overthrow capitalism on their own. How should socialists proceed?

Sybil Davis

May 8, 2020
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The coronavirus is ravaging communities, and the growing economic crisis has left millions out of work and without options. The crumbs that the government has thrown to combat the crises are not nearly enough. In light of this need, many activists and socialists have turned to mutual aid and other forms of local activism. These measures have been incredibly important, especially for undocumented workers who are barred from recieving government aid. However, as these movements grow, it is important to remember that the task for socialists is greater than just aiding other members of our local communities. The task for socialists is to build a revolutionary force capable of crushing the capitalist state and establishing socialism. We will not build this force without engaging in a meaningful way with our communities, but we also will not build this force if we limit our political work to being solely localized work that doesn’t bring us into a direct confrontation with power. However, aligning ourselves with bourgeois political parties and attempting to push them to the left will also not build the revolutionary force that is needed. A mix of local and national political work is what is needed to chart a way forward, which means that the working class needs a political party of their own. 

The coronavirus crisis is showing us that the problems we face are great, and the forces of the bourgeoisie are numerous. To defeat them, we need a winning strategy, which means that we must participate in national politics. That doesn’t mean following the failed strategy of Jacobin and the DSA by running headfirst into the Democratic Party and hoping that this time, unlike all the other times, it will work. Rather, we need to create a political party of our own that is based in class independence and capable of building class power. Through this party, we will be able to facilitate both local and national work, which will fuel one another. In other words, those who become involved in local organizing can be better integrated into a national political project and vice versa. It is through this method that we can ensure that neither national nor local political projects become an end in and of themselves — the end goal is winning socialism. 

The Working Class Must Take Power

Community organizing, such as mutual aid, has a rich tradition among the U.S. left — with many groups taking inspiration from the Black Panthers’ breakfast program. Current groups like Cooperation Jackson and many tenants’ rights organizations have done vital work toward improving the lives of people in their communities. During the coronavirus crisis, local groups have been instrumental in ensuring the surrival of undocumented workers who are out of work and unable to get government stimulus or unemployment. This work can do a lot to alleviate the immediate problems facing localized sectors of the working class. It is important, however, that we not confuse treating the symptoms of capitalism with working towards a cure for the disease. It can be easy, when doing community organizing, to miss the forest for the trees and substitute local organizing — a vital tactic for almost any socialist organization — with a strategy for winning socialism. 

As socialists, we want to end the system of capitalism, expropriate the capitalists, and establish worker control over the means of production. In order to do those things, the working class needs to seize power. As such, we need a winning strategy that builds working class power with the goal of seizing the state. History shows us that in order to seize the state, we need an organized party of the working class, led by its most advanced sectors, that thinks tactically about how to achieve this goal. As socialists, it is our job to build that party, so that we can be ready when the time comes. 

As a historical example, we can look to the experience of Spain and the Spanish Revolution that never fully manifested. In 1936, the working class of Spain rose up in the countryside and was incredibly militant. They expropriated the capitalists, armed themselves, and fought against the state. What they lacked, however, was a party that was ready to lead. As such, when the time came to seize more widespread power, the anarchist leadership chose not to, favoring instead a decentralized strategy that left them unable to provide a response to the centralized forces of fascism, which were advancing in the form of General Franco. Recognizing the need for centralized power, the anarchist leadership of the working class then reversed course and joined with the capitalist state to participate in a bourgeois coalition with both the capitalists and the Stalinists, effectively legitimizing the state and its harsh repression of revolutionaries. As always happens in cases like this, the bourgeois government sabotaged the workers’ self-organization. They were left divided and weak, and they were easily and brutally crushed when the Stalinist Red Army came to suppress them. Had the Spanish working class had a revolutionary party to lead them when the revolution came, instead of the power-wary anarchists, the outcome could have been very different.

For modern examples of how to build a coalition of militant workers, we need only look at some of the organization that has gone on among essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic. In the recent strike at an Amazon facility in NYC, nurses and doctors showed up to support the Amazon employees, because the nurses and doctors understand that the interests of all workers are linked. Workers across the country are becoming increasingly militant in the face of capitalist austerity as a result of the coronavirus. However, this militancy is still in its infancy. It needs somewhere to go. A true revolutionary wave of class struggle moves beyond the demands of an individual employer or industry to calling into question the whole system of capitalism.  The frontline workers are showing a heroic combativeness, and if we are to see the class struggle evolve, socialists must join with them and attempt to push them to take the most left conclusions possible. In other words, the job is not simply to support but also to intervene. This is how we connect ourselves to the workers — by fighting alongside them — and how we can influence situations. We are combatting a national — or, more accurately, an international — problem, and combat on the local level isn’t enough to overthrow this international system. What we do locally must be connected to what we do on a larger scale.  

This is the danger of relying upon community projects alone: you limit the ability of the movement to grow beyond that one community. For example, say you are organizing a food drive for precarious or unemployed workers. Now, this is of course a good and positive thing to do, and it might very well attract a decent number of workers who want to participate and support the project. Many of these workers may want to get more involved with the organization. This could be a great opportunity to dialogue with and possibly recruit these workers. But if there is no larger strategy or project, then those people will have nowhere to go. 

We are in the midst of a public health crisis and what could be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We need wide-scale programs to protect the most vulnerable. Now is not the time to turn away from mass politics. Community projects address specific and immediate needs and can be incredibly important at protecting vulnerable people in specific communities. But it isn’t a winning strategy, and it offers no path from local projects to the seizing of state power. Only doing local projects implicitly suggests that we stop worrying about society as a whole and instead focus on our communities. This mindset is giving up on the hope of widespread change that is foundational to the theory of socialism. We don’t just want to make life a little bit better right now; we want to end the system of oppression that is causing widespread misery. 

Elections Have Opportunities for Socialists

For many socialists, there is a tendency now to dismiss elections entirely. This tendency is due not only to Sanders’s failed primary bid, but also the other failed experiments of reforming the Democratic Party in recent decades. Adherents of this strategy, such as Jacobin, argue that if we run a third party candidate, then that candidate will surely lose. Therefore, the argument goes, we must work within the Democratic Party to push it to the left so that we have a chance of winning an election. This approach to elections is a dead end, akin to bashing one’s own head into a brick wall in hopes that you will, one day, find a door. Indeed, all this strategy has accomplished is leading one sector of an army of young activists into the Democratic Party and demoralizing others.

It is understandable, in the days following Bernie Sanders’s endorsement of Joe Biden, to feel that elections lead to nothing but defeat and demoralization for socialists. But attempting to push the Democratic Party to the left is not the only way to use elections. Indeed, one of the key problems with the Sanders strategy is that it misunderstands where change comes from. It posits that change comes from elections, and the adherents of this strategy told huge swaths of workers that if they wanted Medicare for All, then their only hope was Sanders. Within this framework, of course people are feeling demoralized, because they felt like their only hope of winning better conditions was through a failed political candidate. But that isn’t true, because change doesn’t come through elections; change comes through class struggle. 

However, elections can be incredibly valuable for socialists because they allow us to dialogue with broad sectors of the masses. We can run unabashedly socialist candidates and, through their campaign, raise awareness of our program. Socialists can also use the platform that elections provide to publicly attack bourgeois democracy as the farce that it is. For example, after the Democratic Party establishment collaborated (twice!) to prevent Sanders from winning the nomination, he showed no anger, didn’t speak out against their actions, and played the good soldier by endorsing the candidates who were elevated above him — he even went on a “unity tour” with the chair of the DNC in 2017. Imagine if Sanders had hit out at the Democratic Party, called it out for what it is, and instead run for president as an independent, criticizing the Democratic Party as just another tool of the capitalists. That is how socialists engage in elections: they use them to dialogue with the masses and also undermine the legitimacy of the system. 

The goal of a socialist running for office is not necessarily to win the election, but to use the election to gain more support for the socialist program. Karl Marx said it best when he declared:

Even when there is no prospect whatsoever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces, and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint….they must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments….that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and making it possible for the reactionaries to win. The ultimate intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is infinitely more important than the disadvantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.

Engaging in elections is also important because elections help pull people in and build the revolutionary party, which is a necessary step to the working class taking power. Taking power can only happen through social revolution, led by the working class. In other words, as history shows us, we can’t simply vote capitalism away; we must overthrow it. To do this requires a working class revolutionary party that can mobilize workers towards the goal of overthrowing both the state and the capitalist economic system. That party needs to be built from the sectors of the working class that are fighting and trained in class struggle. Then, when a revolutionary situation arises, the party can mobilize the workers to fight the state because they have already gained the trust of the workers by fighting alongside them in times of struggle. This is why socialists must have a party: because it is a necessary preparatory step for winning the revolution against capitalism. 

A positive example of how socialists can use elections is in the Argentinian Workers Left Front (FIT). The FIT is a coalition of different Trotskyist parties that received around 800,000 votes in Argentina’s last general election. The FIT organized a pre-election rally that numbered 25,000 people, and their presidential candidate Nicolás del Caño used his time in the presidential debates to express support for uprisings in Ecuador, condemn the International Monetary Fund, attack the adminsitration for their support of coup attempts in Venezeula, and demand abortion legalization. After the election where, unsurprisingly, del Caño was not elected as the next president of Argentina, instead of feeling defeated, the PTS (one of the parties that makes up the FIT) filled a stadium for a rally in support of worker uprisings in South America. That is how socialists can use elections to advance the cause of socialism: by organizing the masses around a political program and keeping them engaged even when the election is over.

As socialists in the U.S., the task ahead is clear: we need to build a party of our own. Trying to push the Democratic Party to the left is a doomed proposition, and small-scale mutual aid and base-building projects can produce some positive results but aren’t a winning strategy. We need a party ,and we need to use elections to organize the working class for mass politics. That doesn’t mean we need to believe that elections are where change happens — we know that only class struggle produces any meaningful change — but we need to recognize the strategic value of elections. The coronavirus is laying bare the contradictions of capitalism, and thousands of people are tweeting about a #DemExit; now is neither the time to turn away from national politics nor the time to turn back to the Democrats. Now is the time to build our own organization, one that can dialogue with broad sectors of the working class and will be as combative as the working class. That is the only way we win. 

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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