Solidarity, struggle and socialists

May 7, 2010

Socialists are for every progressive measure that improves the lives of the majority and strengthens its solidarity--and consequently, its capacity to fight for a better society.

"ATTEMPTS TO win social change, however modest, open the eyes of the participants to bigger questions," wrote Alan Maass in a recent SocialistWorker.org article. "They challenge the prejudices drummed into people by capitalist society, and they rouse a further sense of solidarity and commitment to justice."

Anyone familiar with the civil rights movement and student movements of the 1960s or the labor movement of the 1930s in the U.S., or with any revolution in modern history, can see that this is true.

A 1968 poll found that almost 400,000 students agreed on the need for a "mass revolutionary party" in the United States. A 1970 poll of Black soldiers found that almost a third of them planned to join a group like the Black Panther Party when they returned home.

Movements are not homogenous, however. They always contain different forces vying for influence in the struggle. Moderates and middle-class leaders predominated in the early years of the civil rights movement, for example. But as the movement progressed, radical, even revolutionary, ideas began to surface.

Some movement leaders moved leftward. Some, however, remained committed to moderation--to achieving piecemeal reforms without challenging the two-party system, particularly the Democratic Party.

Alarmed by any expression of radicalism in the movement, moderates seek to throw a wet blanket on any efforts to push the struggle in a more militant direction. One tried-and-true method is to draw negative attention to the left, particularly the socialists, in the movement.

Classically, this has taken the form of red-baiting: casting aspersions on socialists by claiming their participation in the struggle has ulterior motives--that they are "infiltrators" who don't really care about the movement's goals, but only expanding their own ranks, and/or seizing control of the movement.

This is a movement variant of the "outside agitator" argument made by employers during strikes that is used to isolate and marginalize the left. In the U.S., the impact of "red scares" has always been to weaken the struggle by arousing suspicions inside the working class and pitting workers against each other.

In every major social movement, you'll find that when the left is strong and well organized, the working-class struggle and other social movements are stronger; when they are weaker and marginalized, the movements also suffer. It is no accident of history that the labor movement in the U.S. was knocked furthest backward in the 1920s and the 1950s--both periods of intense "red scares."


CONTRARY TO the arguments of those who would try to portray socialists as "interlopers," our socialist outlook is what makes us the most committed builders and fighters in social movements.

As socialists, we aim to achieve a society free of all exploitation and oppression. We understand that such a social system can only be created by eliminating capitalism and erecting a new social system in its place. Such a major transformation can only take place in and through the action of millions of people. To quote the Russian revolutionary Leon Trostky, a revolution is the "forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny."

Such a revolution can only arise, or become possible, as the result of a series of mounting struggles aimed at political and social reform. This fact shapes socialists' attitude to the struggle for reforms.

"The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class," wrote Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, "but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement."

This compact statement explains the approach that socialists take to the every-day struggle for reforms. Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg made the same point in a different way:

The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to [socialists] the only means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal--the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labor.

Luxemburg's quote comes from a book she wrote against Eduard Bernstein, a moderate socialist who consciously divorced the struggle for social reform from the final goal of revolution.

Bernstein not only counterposed reform to social revolution--his reformism shaped his approach to the reforms themselves. If one is to gain reforms without challenging capitalism itself, then it is best to be moderate in both your goals and your methods. It is not surprising, then, that historically, reformists have been the ones to put the brakes on struggles and caution social movements not to "go too far."

Yet purely from the standpoint of winning a particular reform, moderation is a bad strategy. Solid reforms are always the byproduct of militant mass action. In Britain, universal suffrage was the product of mass strikes and protests. Apartheid South Africa only fell as a result of protracted struggle involving mass strikes and unrest.

Imagine what might have happened with health care reform in this country if there had been a loud and large social movement--employing mass demonstrations and even strikes--that had pushed for single-payer health care.

Indeed, the most sweeping reforms are often the product of revolutionary action. The 1905 revolution had at its core a wave of mass strikes unheard of in history to that point. Before it went down to defeat, it created a political climate in Russia that was, for a moment, freer than anywhere else in the world. According to the Russian revolutionary Lenin:

The doors of the universities were flung wide open, and the lecture halls, which in peacetime were used solely to befuddle youthful minds with pedantic professorial wisdom...now became the scene of public meetings at which thousands of workers, artisans and office workers openly and freely discussed political issues. Freedom of the press was won. The censorship was simply ignored.


FOR SOCIALISTS, mass action is important not only because it is the most effective way to win reforms, but also because it is only in and through struggle that ordinary people awakened to their own power. As Lenin wrote:

The real education of the masses can never be separated from their independent political, and especially revolutionary, struggle. Only struggle educates the exploited class. Only struggle discloses to it the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will.

Socialists want and fight for reforms. We want stronger, bigger, more democratic unions. We want a shorter workweek. We want a progressive income tax that compels the rich and corporations to pay more taxes than workers and the poor. We want spending priorities that favor human needs over the Pentagon budget and corporate bailouts. We want more and better-quality social services. We want government-provided single-payer health care. We want racial and sexual equality, free abortion on demand, an end to the death penalty and police brutality, a living wage, and amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

In short, we are for every progressive measure that improves the lives of the majority and that strengthens its solidarity, and consequently, its capacity to fight for a better society. And we oppose all things in the struggle that weaken and divide it, including red-baiting.

We socialists are "everywhere" because we see the links between different struggles, and because we seek to link them in practice. In that sense, we give our all for each struggle. But we are not content to stop there.

We seek to build organization that is capable of uniting and giving shape to the inevitable radicalization that comes from capitalist crisis and resistance to capitalism. Yes, we seek to "recruit" to the socialist cause, but we by no means counterpose this to the success of the struggle.

On the contrary, we consider the success of the struggle as a necessary condition for further radicalization that will increase the ranks of fighters for social justice who move from single-issue causes toward becoming socialists.

The stronger, bigger and more successful the fight for union recognition, abortion rights, immigrant rights and so on, the higher the wave of radicalization, and the more that masses of people will gravitate towards the idea that capitalism must go.

For in the end, no matter how sweeping, social reforms by definition do not do away with the economic and social relations underpinning capitalism.

Capitalism is based upon the exploitation of wage labor by capital. Reforms can mitigate the effects of capitalism, but they cannot do away with capitalism itself. For that, the struggle for reforms must develop into a social revolution.

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