Why do we need socialist organization?

March 31, 2011

Alan Maass, author of The Case for Socialism, explains why the building of a democratic and centralized organization is central to the struggle for socialism.

ONE OF the strangest criticisms socialists sometimes hear is that we care about too much.

We involve ourselves in many political movements, rather than sticking to a single issue. We believe there's a connection between, say, opposing bigotry faced by LGBT people and the struggle for democracy in the Middle East. We think it's important not only to plan protests about immediate issues, but to educate ourselves about labor struggles of the distant past and hold meetings about what a future socialist society might look like.

These not-at-all-hidden facts can become the source of a lot of phony outrage when right-wing blowhards find out that, for example, a social worker organizing against budget cuts might also have marched against the Israeli war on Palestinians and thinks women ought to be free to choose to have an abortion.

But some people on the left also object to the idea that activists should view different struggles as inter-connected in various ways--in fact, quite a bit has been written about the importance of movements keeping their autonomy and separateness. There's an uglier charge sometimes associated with this thinking--that socialists don't care that much about the movements we participate in, but are there to recruit people away from them, and to our organization.

A contingent organized by the International Socialist Organization marching against union-busting in Madison
A contingent organized by the International Socialist Organization marching against union-busting in Madison

It's frustrating to hear--not only because that kind of cynicism is totally foreign to why we're committed to socialism, but because political issues in the real world never have those neat divisions.

Our enemies certainly don't perceive different political questions and struggles as separate, do they? If you listen to the ravings of the Tea Partiers or examine the agenda of the right-wing Republicans who speak for them, they don't seem to worry about transgressing the "autonomy" of unique political issues.

The Tea Partiers happily tolerate racist slurs about Barack Obama. They want to take away collective bargaining rights from unions and build a wall on the border to keep out all immigrants. They view all Muslims and Arabs as potential terrorists. They think a woman's place is in the home, that feminism is a crime against nature, and that the church, the state, fathers, husbands--almost everyone except women--should determine what women do with their reproductive lives. They hate LGBT people as much as government-run health care.

Generally speaking, the right doesn't do single-issue politics. They see their political and social concerns as related to a wider agenda.

Anyone on the other side who doesn't approach politics with the same attitude is weaker for it--because they open the way people to be pitted against each other. In Wisconsin, for example, Gov. Scott Walker consciously chose to exempt firefighters and police from his assault on public-sector collective bargaining, hoping they'd support him. But the firefighters recognized that an attack on other unions was an attack on them, too, and they became the heart of the mass protests.

One of the great strengths of the uprising in Wisconsin was how people instinctively united in a common struggle--whether public-sector unionists or private-sector, university students fighting cuts or advocates for the poor challenging the attack on the state Medicaid system.

THIS DYNAMIC--of people who become politically active recognizing what they have in common with others who are taking a stand--is natural to all movements to some extent.

But it doesn't happen automatically or evenly. It also matters what individuals and organizations say and do to point out the connections between different struggles, to make the concrete links between different political forces, to organize the protests and events that bring people together.

Even on a specific political issue, people's ideas don't change all at once. In any struggle, there are always some who are more determined to confront the employers or the political powers that be, more open to seeing the connections to other struggles, more confident about fighting for a political alternative. Nor do people stay the same. Their consciousness changes under the impact of victories and defeats in struggle, the overall political climate and so on--going both forward and backward.

Being a part of the discussions and debates that shape the struggle is one way that the participation of socialists, as part of an organization, can be very important.

During the uprising in Egypt, for example, socialists were central to organizing the first demonstration in Cairo on January 25 that turned out to be the start of the revolution.

But beyond helping to be the spark on that day, the socialists had a wealth of experience in past struggles, including very small ones, that gave them a sense of what needed to be done after the 25th. This experience, as well as their knowledge of other movements of the past, acquired from reading and discussion, gave them a better idea of who the revolution's allies would be, and who would be its enemies--and how to get from the battle for political democracy to questions of economic power.

Socialists who are part of an organization can share their experiences and debate out a common understanding about what can be done, whether in a workplace or a community, a small protest or a mass mobilization. They can express the lessons of past struggles and suggest a way forward. The strength of such an organization is in the range of experiences and the political understanding of all its members, which they can then bring to whatever political activity they're involved in.

An organization like that has to be much more democratic than other political organizations under capitalism. We need to bring together the experiences of everyone who takes part, as well as those passed down to us from the history of past struggles, and make them part of a common basis for everyone to organize around. That means debate and discussion throughout the organization, and a structure that holds those elected to leadership positions accountable.

But a socialist organization has to be centralized as well--to be prepared to act together on the basis of those discussions and the democratic decisions that came out of them. If there's no centralism to hold members accountable for carrying out the decisions of the majority, then the democratic procedures for making those decisions are ultimately pointless.

This question of organization is one of the most controversial ones for the socialist movement. The very idea that socialists might be part of an organization is regarded with suspicion and downright hostility, including on the left.

One reason is the enduring effects of Stalinism, which turned supposedly communist parties in the USSR and around the world into top-down apparatuses that served the interests of those at the top--in other words, all centralism and no democracy.

But another reason runs deeper. Particularly among those new to the left, there's often an instinctive reaction against the idea that anyone in the movement should be held accountable to a decision they disagree with, even if it's a decision of the majority. After all, goes the argument, if we're fighting for a new world based on freedom, shouldn't people be free to act in whatever way they think is best?

The problem is that we don't live in a world of freedom today--and the other side is organized to keep it that way.

The ruling class under capitalism presides over a highly structured and stratified system designed to perpetuate exploitation and oppression. For all the talk of the free market, individual businesses are anything but democratic. The ruling class organizes and distributes its political propaganda through the mainstream mass media and the education system. It can respond to resistance with a rigidly organized and disciplined police force and army, and it coordinates the response of all its institutions in a crisis.

Because the ruling class is a tiny minority of society, it couldn't rule without this organization. So any attempt to challenge that rule means challenging its organization. This requires some level of symmetry--that is, organization on our side to match up to the organization on their side.

If their mass media carries out a slander campaign to smear our unions, we need an equally organized response--our own newspapers and magazines and websites to defend the movement and put forward our vision for change. If their police force is ordered to crack down on protests, we need an organized strategy, relying on the strength of our much greater numbers, to defend our ranks against state violence and repression.

OF COURSE, any genuine mass movement has to be much larger than just the ranks of organized socialists. In Egypt, this was true from the first day of the revolution--and moreover, the accumulated hatred for Hosni Mubarak and his regime throughout society was enough to unite millions of Egyptians and inspire their determination to take action, once the spark was set.

But now that Mubarak is gone, there are political challenges that can't be solved purely through organization in action. Political organization, built around a vision of what comes next in the struggle, is needed. How can the new rulers of Egypt, who want to keep the old regime intact with as few modifications as possible, be confronted? What should be done about the workplaces run by Mubarak's cronies? What about the ones run by people who claim to support political democracy? How can the struggle for democratic rights be extended to take up the questions of poverty, unemployment and so on?

Socialist organization is needed to make sure the voices of those who want to get rid of the whole regime, who want the revolution to take up questions of economic democracy and who look forward to a society built on workers' power are as influential as they can be as the revolution goes forward.

The experience of history shows that socialist organizations can grow quickly during big struggles, but they can't be formed out of nothing overnight. Such an organization has to be built up over time before the big social explosion--contributing what it can to every fight it's involved in, providing the living link between different movements, absorbing the experiences of different struggles and testing its ideas against reality. Its members have to learn the ideas and history of socialism and engage in a discussion about their meaning in order to be ready to offer a way forward in future struggles.

This is why you should be a socialist, not just in thought, but in deed, as part of the socialist movement. We need many more socialists in that movement if we want to play a positive role in the struggles of today and put forward our alternative to capitalism.

But something else is true as well: You need us. If you want to change society, you can't do it alone. As individuals on our own, we can't accomplish much--not even with the best understanding of what's wrong with the world and how it could be different. But as part of an organization committed to speaking out for every struggle for justice, we can make a difference.

This article is based on The Case for Socialism.

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