The Left finds itself at a pivotal crossroads in this moment of profound, converging crises. Between the global pandemic, the widespread movement against systemic racism, the developing economic collapse, and the looming climate catastrophe, we are living through truly unprecedented historical times that portend radical changes to society. Whether it will be for the worse or for the better remains to be seen, but in any event it has become clear that the status quo is incapable of functioning for very much longer. Rosa Luxemburg’s grand ultimatum of “Socialism or Barbarism” is as relevant today as when it was first uttered.
In fact, the circumstances are so dire that one may even accurately claim that we are now faced with the choice between Utopia or Dystopia. Herbert Marcuse, in his lecture “The End of Utopia,” claims that “[t]oday we have the capacity to turn the world into hell, and we are well on the way to doing so. We also have the capacity to turn it into the opposite of hell. This would mean the end of utopia, that is, the refutation of those ideas and theories that use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities.”
Through the immense progress we have made in our scientific understanding of the world and by the technological marvels we have created, we have today the technical productive capacity to meet the vital human needs of all. A truly unified, harmonious, and flourishing global society is an actual possibility. Scarcity is, for the first time in all of history, primarily artificial. It is indisputably true, for instance, that it is well within the bounds of existing productive capacity to feed every single person on Earth well, to ensure that no one any longer suffers from the scourge of hunger or starvation.
Yet despite this real possibility, hunger plagues the masses the world over, killing 25,000 people on average every single day. According to a report by the United Nations, “some 854 million people worldwide are estimated to be undernourished, and high food prices may drive another 100 million into poverty and hunger. The risks are particularly acute among those who must spend at least 60 percent of their income on food: the urban poor and displaced populations, the rural landless, pastoralists, and the majority of smallholder farmers.”
But why this horror upon humanity? Why this deprivation for the most exploited and oppressed classes and races? It is not because we cannot produce enough for all, but because capitalism necessarily produces far too much for the few at the price of utter destitution for the many. Inequality today is staggering and rapidly increasing. Imperialism continues to violently subjugate oppressed nations throughout the world. If we righted the ills of this brutal and decrepit system, and abolished all classes globally, we could use our shared capacities and resources to live exceptionally well across the world in short order. A society that inscribes on its banner the dictum, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” is within our reach. Yet whether we press on in that direction or “perish together as fools,” as the wise Dr. King once cautioned, depends upon what we do in this pivotal time.
Practical questions for the Left are now exceptionally urgent, especially given the impending prospects of the worsening climate crisis. We must figure out how to build mass, working-class, revolutionary organizations which can address our present crises and build a better society in their wake. It is only by means of revolutionary struggle that capitalism, the systematic foundation of our myriad crises, can be abolished in favor of an egalitarian, socialist alternative. Piecemeal reforms and policies, while often desirable, can never adequately address the fundamentally systematic nature of our present predicament. We cannot, as Rosa Luxemburg made all too clear, solely reform our way to socialism. Revolutionary politics are required to meet our present challenges, and this requires an organization that is up to the task of fighting for these ends.
Dilemmas of the Left: Amorphism, Opportunism, and a Lack of Strategy
Yet, in spite of a clear upswelling of support for socialist, emancipatory politics — especially seen in the recent mass uprisings for Black liberation against the racist police — the Left remains terribly disorganized. Broad coalitions have proven difficult to maintain, and sectarian divisions abound among a wide array of organizations. Larger groups, like the DSA, also suffer from a lack of theoretical clarity and strategic coherence. A considerable part of our inability to exercise our united, collective agency more effectively in this global crisis has to do with the amorphous nature of such organizations, with their lack of a more specific, popular political program. If we are to meaningfully fight for the revolutionary ends of socialist politics, and stave off the threat of our social, political, economic, and environmental crises, we must adopt a clear, concrete political strategy that delineates how the working class should fight for our specific demands. A united working class fighting together for the collective emancipation of all oppressed people can only be effective in the fight for socialism if it has theoretical and strategic clarity about its aims and how to achieve them.
Why this lack of strategic coherence? This is due in part to the contradictory political ideologies and tendencies within organizations like the DSA, a result of being an accessible so-called “big tent” group. The prevalence of liberal, opportunist politics, which have characterized the DSA from its inception, especially continues to prevent the Left from unifying under a genuinely revolutionary strategy to fight for socialism. Even though politicians like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar have helped popularize socialist politics and class consciousness, they continue to operate under the auspices of the capitalist, imperialist Democratic Party. In so doing, they have encouraged many on the Left to forgo the necessary work of building truly independent working-class organizations that can unabashedly carry out the struggle for socialism. Instead, they have propagated the illusion that the Democratic Party can somehow be reformed and turned into a vehicle for socialist politics. The complete capitulation of Sanders and his avowed support for a racist, neoliberal politician like Joe Biden, should be enough to disabuse anyone of this idea. Despite this, the considerable influence of Sanders on the Left has led to broad support for opportunistic, reformist politics that still fall under the influence of the Democratic Party.
This has made it difficult for organizations like the DSA to clearly articulate a concrete revolutionary strategy because it has encouraged many members to passively adopt the opportunist political strategies and priorities of this wing of the Democratic Party. If many believe that the working class can use the Democrats to achieve their aims, they will dismiss the need to build organizations and political strategies that are independent of their influence. Worse yet, they may even siphon off organizational energy and resources in the effort to primarily help the Democrats win elections. This, of course, is a dead end for the working class, and a way of ensuring that it continues indefinitely to tail the Democratic Party and its Wall Street managers as the “lesser of two evils.” A clean, full break with this capitalist, war-mongering party is long overdue and necessary to push ahead in the struggle for socialism.
Moreover, the lack of strategic coherence in our present crises also has to do with the very form of some of our organizations. “Politics,” Lenin argues, “cannot be separated mechanically from organization.” The kind of politics a group adopts depends, in no small measure, on the form of the organization itself. Again, the present state of the DSA is a case-in-point. Due to its structure as a “big-tent,” activist organization which, in many ways, resembles a non-profit group, the DSA has been unable to decisively articulate a concrete political strategy by which to organize its members. Instead, it effectively functions as an “activist buffet,” allowing individual members to freely pick and choose their involvement in the organization in a haphazard, uncoordinated manner. This has promoted what Georg Lukacs calls a culture of “bourgeois individualism” within its ranks, a lack of true solidarity and group accountability that prevents more coordinated interventions into the realm of politics.
If members’ involvement and work in the organization is conducted in this disorganized manner — a consequence of its form as a volunteer-led non-profit — it becomes exceedingly difficult to settle upon an organization-wide popular strategy. Unsurprisingly, this has hindered the group’s political efficacy and has inclined it towards the opportunistic politics discussed above. Simply put, the pressing issue of strategic incoherence cannot be settled within the present structures of the DSA as it is currently constituted. Its present form as an amorphous, volunteer group, where the left hand often has no idea what the right is doing, prevents it from settling upon a definite political strategy by which the working class can further the fight for socialism. A new form of organization is thus needed if we are to progress towards that end.
The Need for a Socialist Party
If we are ever to unite around a popular, revolutionary political program, we will need an organizational form that is conducive to this task. An independent, united, working-class political party is precisely that kind of organization. Indeed, the articulation of a coherent political program is a basic, organic function of a party. It is one of the most fundamental reasons that political parties exist. Far from being solely about electoral politics, political parties help organized groups to deliberate about how society ought to be and to decide upon how to get there. Parties require specific political programs and strategies. Thus, the tasks of developing a political program and coming up with a strategy for how to fight for it are among the very first things that would be accomplished by creating a socialist party (regardless of whatever name it happens to take). By organizing ourselves in this manner, we would be taking a major step towards resolving this pressing issue of strategic incoherence which presently besets us.
We would also be developing an organization that can more effectively assert its independence vis-à-vis the Democratic Party. With our own party, we could openly contest the political arena without making unjustifiable compromises to Democratic Establishment functionaries and their Wall Street backers. The fight for socialism requires the working class to have independent organizations with which it can exercise its collective agency. Until we have our own political party, we will find this independence to be persistently wanting, and we will continue to have to deal with all the pitfalls that come with the Democrats’ attempts to co-opt our causes and movements. In sum, opportunism will remain an issue without a complete break with liberal political outfits like the Democratic Party.
This independence is also absolutely necessary for any form of revolutionary politics. Due to the material interests of their financial backers and their clear commitment to the status quo, the Democratic Party will never be a vehicle for this political endeavor. On the contrary, they will openly and avidly oppose revolutionary political aspirations to the utmost of their abilities. Insofar as revolutionary politics are desperately required for us to deal with our present capitalistic crises, in order to create a truly free, socialist society in their stead, we must develop the kinds of groups that can organize the working class for the historical task of revolution. Only a political party can provide the structures of coordination, solidarity, and accountability that is adequate to this mission.
With over 70,000 active members, the DSA remains the largest socialist group in the country. If the organization is to build on this progress, and push ahead with the fight for socialism in earnest, it should be converted into a socialist party. In so doing, the organization would be able to more clearly articulate a political program to struggle for this end, and would build great momentum for an independent, revolutionary working-class movement to deal with our worsening crises. If we are to avoid the worst effects of our decaying capitalist society and to stop the process of global ecological destruction, we must build revolutionary movements to lead us to a better world. The creation of a socialist party is a necessary step in that direction.