Liberalism, reformism and the united front

Todd Chretien comments on the debate at SocialistWorker.org about the united front.

I AM writing to respond to Adam Turl's excellent contribution ("Marches, Marxism and the United Front") to the ongoing debate at SocialistWorker.org. I generally agree with Adam's approach--that is, "the overall socialist methodology behind [the united front] still applies, [but] the actual conditions today are very different." However, I want to comment on the relationship he raises between liberalism and social democracy, and then say a bit about his comments on challenges we face today.

Adam argues that liberalism cannot simply be substituted for social democracy. I think he is absolutely right to point to the tremendous historical differences between, on the one hand, Woodrow Wilson, an American Liberal par excellence who entered the First World War to expand the American Empire, and, on the one hand, Karl Kautsky, a left-wing social democratic revolutionary-turned-reformist, whose one-sided strategy for overturning German capitalism (eventually) proved sterile. Wilson's Democratic Party ruled by virtue of Klan terror in the American South, while Kautsky's Social Democratic Party flirted with illegality and stated as its goal the transformation of capitalism into socialism.

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So, yes, liberalism is not the same as social democracy. But I think it's helpful to consider "Liberalism from Above" and "Liberalism from Below" as two related, but distinct ideological and social trends, as I've suggested elsewhere.

In essence, we ought to treat Liberalism from Below in the U.S. as something akin to European social democracy, even if the parallel is not exact. One of the strengths of European social democracy, at least until relatively recently, was that it placed the question of "which class rules" on the table in a popular way and pointed toward the need for some sort of systematic change: from capitalism to socialism. One of its weaknesses is that it often had no sharp sense of revolutionary struggle.

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THERE HAVE been elements of something that looks like European mass social democratic consciousness at times in the U.S.; for example, the Socialist Party won nearly 1 million votes for Eugene V. Debs' presidential campaign in 1912.

However, at least equally important has been the struggle for freedom led by African Americans, from slavery times to the March on Washington, and this consciousness cannot be easily described as "social democratic." Certainly there are parallels, and the twin demands for "Jobs and Freedom" in 1963 only goes to show this. If American Liberalism from Below does not clearly pose the question of which class rules, it often exudes a clearer sense of revolutionary social transformation and a willingness to sacrifice than its European counterpart. An ethos based on Walter Benjamin's Angel of History armed with a terrible swift sword, I'll add for the philosophy buffs.

Part of the reason for this, it seems to me, has been the continuing power of the American ruling class. They rank right up there with the Romans in deploying the carrot and the stick. The stick is easy to see: genocide, slavery, repression. But try as it might, the American elite cannot completely erase the fact that their system, as it stands today, also required two great social outbursts: a mass upheaval against Britain in 1776 and a revolutionary civil war to exterminate slavery. In both instances, the rulers had to rally behind them the energies, aspirations and sacrifices of the ordinary people, whom they so despised, in a fight which promised freedom, equality and democracy... big carrots.

The trade union, feminist and Black freedom movements of the 20th century all drew strength from these previous social movements, and they have been more recently enforced by struggles for peace, immigrant rights and LGBTQ equality. These imprints run like great cracks through the external shell of Liberalism From Above as it smothers and dominates resistance from below.

It seems to me that one of our jobs as the left (not the only job) is to identify those historical cracks and widen them by means of contemporary political and social movements, eventually finding a way to break Liberalism From Below free so it can speak in its own voice, a voice that might sound very much like that of Martin Luther King. That, as Marx once said about smashing the Napoleonic bureaucracy, would be "the precondition for any real people's revolution."

This can be especially difficult because Liberalism from Above and Below often refer to the same events and even uses some of the same language, so learning to distinguish between the two (and how they interact) can be a challenge. Many people mistake one for the other in both directions. Worse, Liberalism from Above has the most powerful political party in the world--the Democratic Party--at its disposal.

Furthermore, not all trends of radicalism in the U.S. have necessarily fallen under this dynamic. For example, aspects of Native American struggle for self-determination, certain mass movements calling for Black separatism, and some sections of the Chicano movement rejected integration or "equal rights" as a framework, and these movements deserve their own discussion.

Yet the image Dr. King's "promissory note" drawn on the memory of what Howard Zinn called "A People's History" seems to me to describe the framework within which class and social struggles will predominately emerge in the United States. This is not simply ideology, or "social democracy" using different terms.

Learning to identify these impulses is critical. Even more important is learning how to merge with them in the practice of building social movements and organizations. In this sense, then, the united front isn't simply a historical novelty or a tactic that must wait for the development of something calling itself "social democracy." Rather, it is a permanent dynamic that the left must find a way to put into practice.

We should not get hung up on whether or not a particular initiative is, strictly speaking, a "united front" because the sizes of the forces involved don't measure up to Germany in 1932, or if the class content of the agents involved is not always clearly defined. What matters most is essence, not form. In short, we need a permanent political practice of united fronts and alliances which will eventually build up to a United Front.

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ADAM RAISES a separate, but I believe related, question in his piece--namely, the revolutionary left, including but not limited to the ISO, has had a very difficult time getting our bearings. He notes that because it all too often frames "too many things in the context of turning points, new movements and historic openings, the result was inevitability to curtail political discussion of the actual content and context of those events."

Alan Maass responded at SocialistWorker.org ("Our past should inform our present") to Adam, arguing that we did not do this in the case of the March on Washington, and that the paper strives to be "sober and realistic." I think Alan's right to say that, and I'll go him one better--I believe Socialist Worker's editorial board has a second-to-none record of rapidly and accurately assessing political developments, while maintaining an open attitude towards publishing opposing or differing views. What else can you ask of a newspaper?

However, I think Adam's was pointing to a broader dynamic, so I will give him a conditional "Amen." Speaking for myself, I have a very distinct memory of being a new member of the ISO and of recruiting a student to our branch of four or five members at Columbia University in 1991 and thinking "two more, and we will have political hegemony on campus." Gramsci was surely rolling in his grave over that one!

But delusions of grandeur aside, as I gained a bit of experience, things got more interesting. In 1992, tens of thousands rebelled in LA and beyond against the Rodney King verdict. In 1997, the Teamsters struck UPS across the whole country. Between 1999 and 2001, from the Battle of Seattle to D2K in Los Angeles to the G8 in Quebec, mass demonstrations broke out for global justice.

In 2000, Nader won 2.7 million votes. From 2001 until 2005, millions took to the streets against the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2006, 3 million immigrants carried out the largest protests in U.S. history on May Day. In 2008, we witnessed the first Black president and fell into the worst economic crisis in 70 years and got Proposition 8. In 2011: Tunisia, Egypt, Occupy. 2012: Chicago Teachers strike. 2013: the Zimmerman verdict.

Now, it is possible that we will look back in five (or ten or more) years, those dots will have created some sort of coherent picture as the pre-history of the United Front, so to speak, and our attempts to construct united front-type things along the way will have built critical relationships and taught us valuable lessons. Or maybe we are in for an even longer and more protracted struggle than any of us envisioned. This is obviously worth thinking about. But whichever turns out to be the case, as revolutionaries, we still need a political practice that responds to huge events in the world with enthusiasm and engagement.

I asked Angela Davis about this difficulty a couple years ago, and she replied approximately as follows, "It's tough, but you have to act as if what you are doing will matter. We did change history in the 1960s and '70s. I can see that when I look around. It will happen again. But it's tough."

I think that's pretty good advice, even if it's hard to follow at times. But I also have to say that "something isn't happening here." I remember being at an antiwar demonstration of 50,000 people in San Francisco in 2005 and asking a former member of the SWP (U.S.) why the Campus Anti-War Network we were trying to build was so weak. Why were we so small compared to the student organizations in the 1960s? I will never forget his response: "It's nothing you're doing wrong, it's just that there was a movement then, and there isn't one now."

Remember, this was at a march with 50,000 people. What he meant was that there's a gap between big Saturday marches and sustained local organizing. Marches are better than nothing, but they aren't everything. We have to learn to appreciate each in its place--strengths and weaknesses--and how socialists can help close the gap, which remains frustratingly wide, between the two. I believe that the ISO is uniquely placed to help in this process.

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ADAM IS partially right when he says that we have "curtail political discussion" in order to immerse ourselves in the events I've described above. But only partially right.

Again, speaking personally, when I decided to run for U.S. Senate in 2006 on the Green Party ticket alongside Peter Camejo, I so wanted the campaign to help revive the antiwar movement that I was not eager to hear any criticism of the tactic. Another example was our attempt to keep the Campus Anti-War Network alive for too long and the pressure we put on some of our student organizers to persist with it in the face of the movement's decay. I'm sure comrades can think of other examples. So there is a basis to Adam's point.

However, I think we've also changed tremendously over the years and developed increasingly level-headed assessments which have helped us simultaneously respond to world events and think them through more closely. And we have grown more comfortable with a wider range of opinion about what we call perspectives--that is, our best guess as to what areas of work and education we ought to prioritize over a given period. I might even say that we have grown more mature in our ability to distinguish between "turning points" and the deeper processes at play in this age of neoliberal restructuring.

So, Adam is right that we cannot substitute a sensible discussion about the real obstacles we face today with formulas from the past (but who is saying we can?) and that we have at times, even too often, created a "hothouse atmosphere" around some debates. At the same time, we have also had a thoughtful and democratic practice that has sustained long-running debates over critical questions, and I believe this to be increasingly the case.

So our task remains--and I'm sure Adam will agree with this--that bringing experience from the past onto the plane of our present analysis and practical planning is what Marx meant by revolutionary theory and practice. That is, after all, what this is all about.