Right sentiment, but the wrong conclusions

September 24, 2015

David Russitano and Ragina Johnson respond to a Readers' View discussion about strategies for socialist organizing in the U.S.

DAN R.'s Readers' View article ("The lessons of SYRIZA for U.S. socialists") attempts to learn the lessons of the experience of SYRIZA--the Coalition of the Radical Left--in Greece.

The main conclusion he draws is that U.S. revolutionaries must begin now to build mass left-wing parties along the lines of SYRIZA. Dan claims the lessons of SYRIZA are not Greek, but universal, writing, "Though there are many lessons to learn from SYRIZA, in my view, the most important is that neither its 'Greekness' nor its meteoric rise to political power mean that we cannot begin the creation of similar formations in the United States and elsewhere."

Dan is coming from the right place. There is a desperate need to reconnect the Marxist tradition with working-class struggle and organization that has been missing since McCarthyism in the 1950s, when the ruling class purged U.S. unions of radicals and socialists. However, we believe that rather than simply advocating that we copy their model, it would better to analyze the concrete conditions that led to SYRIZA and now Popular Unity.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

And in the wake of the September 20 elections, which returned a SYRIZA party now committed to austerity to power and witnessed the genuine radical left alliance Popular Unity's failure to pass the 3 percent threshold to be represented in parliament, revolutionaries have to be even more specific about the strategy and tactics of building broad anti-austerity parties.

THE SPECIFICS of the last few weeks aside, attempting to copy the Greek experience under very different circumstances in the U.S. can take revolutionaries' focus away from the difficult and important work that we can do here under our own unique conditions.

Of course, were it possible to create the type of broad party that Dan wants in the here and now, we would be very happy to discuss the potential. As far as we see, it is not a theoretical question but a practical question. More than anything, in order to do what Dan suggests, we would need to develop a concrete proposal about how such a party would be created. Instead of doing so, Dan spends most his article arguing against the dichotomy of reform and revolution. The implication of focusing on this argument is that the revolutionary left in the U.S. is getting it wrong by counterposing reform to revolution.

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If he is directing his argument to readers and writers of Socialist Worker--the newspaper of the International Socialist Organization--then Dan knows that we are steeped in the tradition of the united front strategy. Following this method, the ISO tries to unite wherever possible with all groups fighting for progressive reforms to better the conditions of the working class and oppressed, while also maintaining our right to advocate socialist strategy and tactics, political principles and independent organization.

We have worked alongside the Green Party (and other electoral formations) to support left-wing candidates, and we have fought for a higher minimum wage, affordable housing and equal marriage, as well as campaigning to keep military recruiters out of high schools and to end the death penalty.

In other words, we have organized with reformist groupings for specific aims. The ISO is clearly not theoretically opposed to working with, or within, larger reformist organizations or even "creating and shaping political formations" of this kind.

However, to be meaningful, the question of creating a U.S. version of SYRIZA has to be concrete. It isn't enough to say, as Dan does, "What forces such a project will involve, what the key reforms are and how exactly to begin this process...are secondary to a commitment to taking them [seriously]." (our emphasis)

Instead, we need to ask some serious questions about who else is ready to do so. What do these forces agree on politically? How should we knit together such an alliance? The devil is in the details. We are open to such a project, but by posing the question in the abstract, Dan seems to imply an opposition to considering building broad political formations that doesn't exist, at least not within the ISO.

THE PROBLEM, though, is that a model from Greece cannot be simply mapped onto our situation. As in any question of political strategy and perspectives, we have to start from understanding the concrete conditions where we organize: What are the balance of forces, the strength of the left, the consciousness of the working class, the state of politics and the strength of the ruling class?

Our tactics for building organization should be grounded in an understanding of the concrete economic, political and social situation, as well as our working class history. The answers to these questions are not static, of course, and should be reassessed as conditions change.

Leon Trotsky spoke of the need to understand the dialectical relationship between challenges and opportunities in any given balance of forces in a 1924 statement: "The whole art of revolutionary politics consists in correctly combining objective analysis with subjective action. And in this is the gist of the Leninist school."

Concretely, in the U.S., the forces of the broad left are in a 40-year slide due to a concerted effort by the capitalist class to break unions, most recently, through its austerity agenda. Strikes and union organization are at historically low levels not seen since the early 1920s.

Even teachers, the best-organized group of workers in the country, are facing a sustained attack and huge losses through the courts and privatization. These conditions have led to important signs of resistance like this month's strike in Seattle. But this unfortunately remains the exception and not the norm.

Given the low level of class struggle, it is not a surprise that the revolutionary left in the U.S. is small. If the working class is not struggling to take back some of the wealth stolen from workers, it becomes harder for an emerging left to see the potential power that workers have, the need for revolutionary organizations and the potential to overturn the system.

If you add to all this the restrictions on voting rights--for instance, barring suffrage for ex-felons and immigrants--and the way that the Electoral College and other legal impediments stack the deck against the working class, the very real obstacles to building up a third party come into view.

Forming "a party that can appeal to a working-class majority and create a common political space for revolutionaries to engage in debates" is a daunting strategy, and if the conditions for launching it do not exist, then prioritizing it as an immediate goal may do more harm than good. That's why we don't believe the "how" of this huge task can be treated, as Dan suggests, as "secondary."

DAN ALSO downplays the real challenges the left faces in this country. Revolutionary organizations are under tremendous pressure to adapt to mainstream politics and give up "organizing a minority" in favor of dissolving into movements led by liberals. The strength of the Democrat Party and its ability to absorb energy from the movements has eroded even the basics of class organization. Because of this trend historically, the American left has often been weaker than its counterparts in Europe or Latin America.

Based on what he wrote, it seems that Dan hopes we can skip over this historic problem. He writes: "We can't afford to content ourselves with organizing a tiny minority who--even if they want to see a revolution in the United States--have no more idea than we do what that will actually mean."

But if we are really to apply the lesson of SYRIZA to the U.S., then we need to take seriously the building of explicitly revolutionary organization. It will take work in many movements and struggles, be they large or small--such as Black Lives Matter, against sexual violence, against climate change, in support of local labor unions, rent control and affordable housing--to build the sorts of stable organizations and the mature political culture that allowed our brothers and sisters in Greece to create SYRIZA and then Popular Unity.

It is these smaller struggles taking place today--and those that are sure to emerge in the future--that we believe will lay the foundation for building any potential mass party.

Outside of (or alongside) ongoing struggles, there continues to be an opening for socialist ideas. Many people are excited to learn about a socialist analysis of the world's ills and how we need to organize ourselves to fight back and win. A whole new generation of young people are growing up in the United States stuck with student debt and working low-wage jobs. They pay astronomical rents and rising health care costs while historically high profits flow to the rich. Lots of these folks are open to a structural critique of capitalism and want to hear about a socialist alternative.

There are no worthwhile shortcuts for such a project. It's not the case that a U.S. version of SYRIZA is the only path to growth for the revolutionary left, or that it is the proper next step. It seems more likely that this sort of formation will come only at a higher level of organization and struggle, and we will look forward to that challenge when we are convinced the conditions exist to make it a concrete possibility.

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