Thursday, February 13, 2020

Letting Go of Revolution, For Now

I wrote this in the late Summer of 2019 prior to joining the DSA in an attempt to work through my own changing politics and, ultimately, explain my decision to join the group.  Thanks to the friends and comrades who commented on earlier drafts.

A Changed Situation

The major organizational development in American left politics in the past five years has been the dramatic growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).  Now boasting upwards of 50,000 members, the DSA has destabilized other, far smaller socialist groups in one form or another with its gravitational pull.  Perhaps the most striking example of this has been the International Socialist Organization (ISO), whose members were departing for the DSA both before and after its official dissolution.  Some other socialist groups which have managed to survive organizationally nevertheless have one foot in the DSA, with cadre formally maintaining membership in the organization and participating in its internal life.  Yet still other groups such as The League for a Revolutionary Party (LRP) firmly demarcate themselves from the DSA, but have failed to prevent much of their membership from defecting to its ranks. [1]

The stampede of socialists into the DSA has been a spur to reassessment in many sectors of the socialist left.  Even if the current soul-searching often takes the form of abstruse debates about Leninism and Kautsky, it nevertheless is apparent that a major realignment in American socialist politics has been taking place, and that “democratic socialist” politics is the major beneficiary.  The fact that the membership of the largest socialist organizations are voting -- with their feet -- that they are more comfortable inside a social-democratic milieu reveals certain truths about the political possibilities of the present moment. 

In this article, we intend to explain this sea change in the American socialist left and analyze its significance.  We will also suggest an orientation for the socialist left today.  In short, given that there are no revolutionary possibilities on the immediate horizon, socialists would be more productive inside social-democratic organizations, which have seen some successes of their political model as of late.

DSA Rises, Others Fall

Many retrospective analyses of the ISO’s demise remark that the time in which it existed was an unpropitious time for revolutionary politics, which is surely correct.  The conditions in the United States for the past few decades (at least) have not been fertile soil for revolutionary movements.  But the same timespan was also unfavorable for social-democratic politics.  The “left” in the U.S. was dominated by a rightward-moving Democratic Party (DP), with little organized presence to its left outside of a constellation of small Marxist groups.  Organized labor’s leadership hitched its wagon to the Democrats, preventing itself from being the backbone of a more progressive movement.  Various social movements transpired, but none left a permanent organizational presence; some melted away into NGOs, new or old.  The DSA, until a few years ago, was all but irrelevant.

The 2016 Presidential Election was the dynamic that initiated the reshuffling of the left.  Inspired by the Sanders campaign, and negatively inspired by Trump’s menace and Hillary Clinton’s arrogance and ineptitude, droves of leftists, new and old, found a new political home inside of the “democratic socialism” [2] of the DSA.  Many came around to the position, which the radical left had long held, that Democratic Party could not be trusted as the main organizational vehicle for left politics.

The rocketing of the DSA’s membership past that of existing Marxist organizations presented the latter's cadre with a stark and troubling dilemma: why is the DSA growing, and not us?  Various Marxist groups attempted different schemes to win DSAers over to their own organizations, but all proved unsuccessful.  Socialist Alternative (SAlt) supported the Bernie Sanders campaign, but only inspired an exodus from its organization.  Some SAlt members were offended by the notion of supporting a bourgeois party candidate like Sanders, but more simply didn’t see the point in staying in an organization that had lost any meaningful political difference with the DSA and simplified their political lives by joining DSA.

The ISO, by contrast, did not endorse the Sanders campaign.  The ISO did, however, praise the Sanders campaign (and other DSA-associated victories) as positive developments for socialism, an equivocal stance which left its membership perplexed.  Some opted to resolve the confusion by departing the ISO for the DSA, and the ISO continued to bleed members until its final demise.  The ISO’s dissolution released its remaining members to choose another political home, and many of those believed the DSA to be their best option.

Competition Creates Collapse

What accounts for the dramatic (and sometimes terminal) decline of some Marxist organizations in the span of a few short years?  Why did their memberships react to the rapid growth of the DSA by quickly departing for it?  The answer lies in two observations.  First, these Marxist groups were, in essence, practicing a social-democratic politics.  Second, during all but the most recent years of these groups’ existence, there was no social-democratic group competing for their members’ allegiance.  When a social-democratic group emerged that proved a more natural fit for the members of the Marxist organizations, and offered the prospect of a large(r) group, and consequently meaningful political power, it soon won them over.  The second observation should be clear but the first requires some elaboration.

Asserting that Marxist organizations were/are not practicing a revolutionary politics may seem like a condemnation of them for being insufficiently militant, but it is not meant to be.  Instead, the point is that what a revolutionary group’s practice should be in non-revolutionary times is ambiguous.  Mostly these groups default to fighting for reforms -- a worthy goal, but one which makes their political practice virtually indistinguishable from a social-democratic group.  A Marxist might put a Luxemburgist spin on this reality, saying that revolutionaries do not counterpose reforms to revolution.  True enough, but without the realistic expectation of a revolution, such a qualification becomes meaningless.

These “revolutionary” groups were in fact social democratic groups, just with better discipline and organization.  None of them (to their credit) ever realistically contemplated any kind of insurrection against the state.  Nor could they even stipulate a series of plausible conditions that might lead to such a situation.  True, members tended to be quite committed, and involved themselves intensely with the affairs of the organization, whether this meant participating in its protest culture or the many study groups that the organization sponsored.  Much ado was made about independent working class organization, but when push came to shove, these organizations would often back the efforts of organized labor leadership.

The only major distinguishing feature of these organizations’ practice that was incompatible with American social-democratic politics was their refusal to support any DP candidate.  When this taboo was flaunted, it opened the floodgates to their memberships’ exodus.  Having collapsed any realistic distinction between the DSA and themselves, these “revolutionary” groups ensured their own demise.

Change and Continuity

In our view, the weakening of these Marxist groups is not a cause for despair.  But neither do we want to tastelessly dance on the graves of these groups, since they contributed to righteous causes, and especially because many of their members experienced their sudden collapse as an acute and traumatic betrayal.  Rather, so long as their erstwhile members continue in socialist politics, we can modestly celebrate the current political realignment as a sober reaction to changing political circumstances.  If these “revolutionary organizations” no longer hold sway in America, it is emblematic of a clearheaded recognition of the impossibility of revolution in the near future.

Ending membership in a “revolutionary organization,” may at first seem like a severe blow to the ego of those who defined themselves as revolutionaries, [3] however it is difficult to identify any principles one is abandoning by transitioning to a social-democratic organization.  Even the DSA’s distinction between “democratic socialism” and “social democracy” stipulates that the former desire a social revolution, and think it may be possible at some point in the unspecified future.  How is this meaningfully different from the ideologies the erstwhile cadre espoused?

Indeed, many of the major philosophical foundations of the Marxist worldview remain intact.  Class conflict remains the indispensable narrative with which to interpret history and social reality.  Democratic centralism is the only meaningfully democratic way in which to organize a political group. [4]  The working class, however unmobilized or lacking consciousness at the moment,  is still the only class with the ability to run society in the interests of the entire population, and the only group which holds a strategic power to accomplish this.  A dictatorship of the proletariat is the only way to exercise working-class power at the state level in a way that will be able to disorganize bourgeois class power, and a revolution (however distant in the future it may be) will likely be needed to carry out such a task.

The Real Dilemma: The Democratic Party

The real contemporary challenge to the Marxist perspective, however, is how leftists should relate to the Democratic Party.  It is no coincidence that it was this issue that triggered such turmoil, theoretical and otherwise, in Marxist groups in the last several years.

The bitter truth is that advocacy of socialist political independence from the DP has been a political failure in the past few decades, and remains so today.  Marxist groups that continue to advocate complete non-cooperation with the DP -- of the Spartacist variety, for instance -- have not succeeded in attracting many to their cause (and, indeed, are in the process of a protracted disintegration, held together only by the tight grip of a clique of aging organizational stalwarts).  As many have pointed out, the unique and undemocratic structure of the American political system makes the formation of a stable and long-lasting independent working-class party a daunting task. 

DSA has charted a course of pursuing organizational independence (that is, it exists as an organization separate from the DP) but not political independence, i.e., it regularly cooperates with the DP in a variety of ways, including running candidates on the DP’s ballot line.  And the DSA has not just had success with this method, but has in some ways redefined America’s political culture.  Factional disputes within the DP now pit the DSA’s candidates (e.g. Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib) against the centrist DP establishment.  Right-wing propaganda networks have unceasingly portrayed Ocasio-Cortez as the demon of socialist radicalism since her election to the House of Representatives.  With these and other victories (e.g., Salazar) the DSA has demonstrated itself to be a large and growing threat to entrenched centrist DP control of New York (and potentially elsewhere).  Policies such as the Green New Deal (whatever our criticisms of them) would have been not just unthinkable but unvoiced in the halls of power without these electoral victories.  These triumphs may be modest, but they far exceed whatever accomplishments may have been achieved by other contemporary Marxist groups.

Nevertheless, the DP old guard (and its constituency) remains an obstacle to the goals of socialist politics.  Therefore, every effort must be made to heighten the contradictions between socialists and the DP’s sclerotic wing.  Eventually, an independent socialist party will be necessary for qualitatively increasing the influence of left-wing politics.  Much debate can and should be had about how, and when, to accomplish this task, since it will involve the tricky maneuver of some degree of utilizing the DP to such an end.  The only certainty is that the DP establishment will do everything in its power to prevent it.

Many socialists for generations have decried a strategy of having anything to do with the DP as opportunism, i.e., as a betrayal of working-class interests for the sake of others’ gain.  However, the political strategy that truly represents the working class is a great deal more uncertain today than in the era of mass social-democratic or communist parties (even putting aside the historical question of whether working-class interests were always faithfully represented by these parties).  We can not betray a party that does not exist, and it is not clear that working-class interests are better served by pursuing the (to reiterate, failed) strategy of agitating for the immediate formation of an independent working-class party than some other strategy.  Pursuing the reforms that AOC and other DSA members are calling for, on the other hand, does seem to have some traction, and enlarging the welfare state would be a striking working-class victory.

Other socialists have decried collaboration with the DP as a return to the US Communist Party’s (CPUSA) Popular Front strategy.  However, the tragedy of the Popular Front, as its detractors acknowledge, was that it disbanded the most militant segments of working class organization that had been painstakingly built up in the preceding years.  The dubious merit of the present moment is that there are no such formations to abandon.  The 2010s differ from the 1930s in many ways, and socialist strategy should take these discrepancies into account.  (Another key difference is that the CPUSA was perennially attempting to “Americanize” its largely immigrant party.  A present-day task for the DSA is to “internationalize” the party, both in its constituency -- which remains largely English-monolingual and US-born -- and in its politics, which unfortunately largely ignore international issues. [5])


There are many uncertainties about a future revolution: how it could be realized, what society it would produce, and how to prevent it from degenerating into a nightmare, as revolutions have unfortunately sometimes done.  While these questions are the topics of speculation, the only certainty that we have about revolution in the present-day American context is that it is an impossibility right now and for the foreseeable future.  There are many features of American politics to bemoan, but more on the left coming to this realization is not one of them.  The recent collapse of “revolutionary” organizations and growth of the DSA is testament to the fact that more are moving towards this position.

Sparking intra-party fights in the Democratic Party has recently proven to be a successful way to move American politics to the left.  Socialists should continue this assault on the right wing of the DP, which will inevitably entail some kind of involvement with the DP.  How this will be done, exactly, is both unresolved and precarious, given the DP’s long history of combating such efforts.  However, it does seem a more promising socialist strategy than any other on offer at present.

[1] One can find more detail about some of these changes in this polemic by the Internationalist Group (a Spartacist League split).  There also has been upheaval in more secretive Marxist groups such as World Workers Party (WWP) and Liberation Road (the former Freedom Road Socialist Organization - Freedom Road) which we would speculate, similarly, has something to do with the rise of DSA.  Another Marxist group, Solidarity, is reportedly effectively dissolving into DSA.
[2] For the purposes of this article, “democratic socialism” and “social-democracy” are interchangeable terms.  Some try to draw a distinction between the two by claiming the former has not renounced the possibility of revolution at some point in the unspecified future and the later has, but it is not clear that that is an accurate characterization of most social-democrats’ beliefs.  Presumably, many social-democrats would also be willing to concede the hypothetical far-off possibility of revolution.
[3] Self-identification as a revolutionary is an odd self-conception to hold, since it ties one’s identity to a strategy that may or may not be appropriate in a particular context.  The goal of every socialist is a free society; revolution is simply one possible means to that end.
[4] There have been many polemics written recently about the nature of democratic centralism and its relevance to Marxist organization.  But whatever democratic centralism is supposed to mean in theory, it was implemented in certain Marxist groups as a culture of secrecy and unaccountability.  Such an organizational structure was able to maintain these groups so long as their leadership went unchallenged, but once serious internal questions were raised about strategy and accountability -- prompted by the recent change in political circumstances -- “democratic centralism” was unable to contain the controversies.  In any event, the internal democracy of the DSA, whatever its flaws, compared favorably with the internal organization of the Marxist organizations that were repelling its departing members.

In our view, democratic centralism remains a valuable method of Marxist organization, one that has little to do with how it is/was misinterpreted in certain Marxist groups.  Indeed, the term “democratic centralism” becomes almost or actually redundant if it is realized as it was originally intended: an effective implementation of democracy inside a political organization.
[5] There are many other practices of the CPUSA that the DSA would do well to emulate, and of course others that it should avoid like the plague.  This, however, is a topic for another essay.