Are movements enough to make socialism?

September 1, 2016

Socialists are active in a wide range of struggles throughout society, but we also emphasize the building of explicitly socialist organization. Dorian Bon explains why.

WE LIVE in a time of radicalization and polarization.

Tens of millions of people across the U.S. are rejecting the ideologies that have dominated mainstream political debate during the last three decades--and they are searching for an alternative to the status quo. Alarmingly for America's rulers, these budding radicals are most concentrated among people in their teens and 20s--the people who become the core of the national workforce and electorate for the next generation.

According to recent opinion polls, young people prefer socialism to capitalism by a fairly wide margin. In this year's Democratic presidential primaries, they gave self-described socialist Bernie Sanders half-a-million more votes than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump got from them combined.

But while this shift in consciousness has certainly impacted the political scene, it is still in its early stages and hasn't taken a form powerful enough to affect the kind of far-reaching change so many hope for. The most unjust aspects of the system--the routine police murders, record-setting inequality, mass incarceration, for-profit health care and endless wars, to name but a few--all remain firmly intact.

A table for the International Socialist Organization at Ohio University in Athens
A table for the International Socialist Organization at Ohio University in Athens

That's why it's so significant that a small but prominent layer of America's radicalizing youth is looking toward protest and active resistance as a means to bring about real change. The American Freshman Survey, which polled 141,000 students last academic year, revealed that 14,000 incoming freshman planned to take part in protests before they graduate--the highest number in the survey's 50-year history.

These students and many more like them will confront questions that are simultaneously exciting and difficult: What should I get involved in? How can I most effectively fight for change? What should my end goal be?

These are questions all of us have to grapple with, and they deserve detailed reflection and plenty of discussion. What I would like to do here is take up just one issue, which bears on virtually all forms of political activism: how to balance the need for organizing around specific demands and reforms, while also building a broader political opposition to the whole ruling order.


FOR MANY activists, the most intuitive way to push for radical social change is by participating in one of the many movements we see around us: the Movement for Black Lives, the struggle against the fossil fuel industry, the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, to take a few examples.

All of these struggles are vitally important and demand our attention. But we also need to dedicate time to building a wider political organization--one that trains activists in how to fight against all forms of injustice, as well as how to intervene in the public sphere and persuade others of both particular political solutions and the general need for an alternative society.

There are many aspects to this discussion, and the socialist tradition has plenty to read about the necessity of revolutionary organization--as well a whole other range of issues regarding how that party should be organized and how to try to construct it today, when no such party exists.

But there are two points directly pertinent to the questions facing a new generation of activists that I want to discuss.

First, none of the social movements fighting for an end to oppression and injustice can fully realize their goals without the support of other movements developing around them. The interests and institutions that govern our society are too powerful and too thoroughly opposed to genuine social justice for any single movement to overcome them on its own.

Activists from the many social struggles have to band together in a common organization to build the power needed to achieve real change. Only this way can we match the unity of the elite, which regularly comes together in a single set of lobbies and institutions to confront any dissent from their rule.

The need for this practical and organizational unity between many social movements becomes even clearer when we step back and reflect on just how thoroughly interwoven they are with one another.

We cannot hope to fully address and defeat racism against African Americans, for example, without simultaneously fighting the oppression of women, LGBTQ people, immigrants and other groups--because the particular forms of racism that so many people face are shaped by and interwoven with these various other forms of oppression. The same dynamic exists in virtually every other struggle.

An organization and party of the left can help to cohere these struggles--within themselves and in their connections to each other--thereby strengthening our forces to achieve greater victories than we're currently capable of winning.


THE SECOND major point to consider when thinking about political organization flows from the fact that even if the many social movements were to unite in a common front, they would still not have the power necessary to win the biggest demands--for example, creating a green energy infrastructure, ending mass incarceration or establishing a single-payer health care system.

That kind of power only emerges when masses of people--in our workplaces and communities and on our campuses--rise up and organize to insist on more thorough change. Most importantly, socialists look to the working class--which constitutes the vast majority of society--because when united, it has the power to shut off the flow of profits that the ruling class depends on, until its demands are met.

This is why it isn't sufficient for organizers and activists on the left to focus only on building movements for change. The most fundamental social change can only be accomplished by the large majority of the working class--influenced by the most radical and active workers within the class, but acting in unity to change the world.

The role of socialists in this process is to find the best arguments, methods and platforms, and to recognize and engage with the most promising opportunities, to persuade and organize larger numbers of people to act for themselves in pursuit of radical social transformation.

Mobilizing the large majority of society to fight in this way is a daunting task. But there is a long and inspiring history of working class struggle in the U.S. that developed in exactly this direction when it was moving forward--and that achieved important successes along the way.

To pursue these goals, we badly need to build a political organization--and, as soon as it becomes possible, a mass, political party--so that socialists can influence people wherever we're active, with the goal of increasing their level of confidence and organization in the struggle for change.

This requires not only fighting for specific demands around specific issues. It also means taking the time to study history and political ideas, and apply their lessons in practice. And it requires discussion and debate to formulate the most effective ways of reaching as many people as possible to put forward a socialist analysis of the world and our ideas for changing it.

There is a need for political organization on many levels, from local movements around a specific issue to national initiatives around, for example, the latest election. But socialists need to stress the need for explicit socialist organization, especially now that more young people agree with the idea of socialism over capitalism. Such an organization needs to be democratic and open to experimentation, so that everyone who participates feels they are crucial to it--because they are.

The capitalist class will fight by any means necessary to stop a workers' movement if it appears to be coming close to achieving its aims of social justice. Socialists need to be clear from the outset about the need to end the ruling class' control over society--and to place the working class, the immense majority of society, in power.

This is why socialists, in addition to participating in many struggles throughout society, prioritize the building of a socialist organization that can unite social movements against injustice and exploitation and influence larger and larger numbers in support of the goal of a future socialist society. Ultimately, there is no other way out of the crisis that capitalist society imposes on us.

Members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) are trying to carry this project forward in local branches across the country. This fall, branches on college campuses will kick off the school year with meetings on "Join the Fight for a Socialist Future."

You should join us and help take the next steps toward achieving a new society. This fight is every bit as much yours as it is ours.

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