Socialist organization in the time of Trump

January 19, 2017

The rise of Trump and the right has underlined the urgent need for political organization. Todd Chretien has some questions to consider if you're looking over the socialists.

HUNDREDS OF thousands of people are going to be protesting Donald Trump's inauguration and marching to send a message for women's rights and other demands in the next few days. And there's every reason to believe these mobilizations won't stop anytime soon.

The Donald groping his way to power will dominate mainstream headlines, but the big news for the left is that socialism is re-emerging as a systemic alternative to capitalism. Thousands of people are asking whether it's time to join socialist organizations in order to resist Trump--and the social system that gave rise to his villainy in the first place.

Of course, there are important shades of difference in how people define socialism--ranging from Bernie Sanders' advocacy for increasing taxes on the wealthy so we can expand Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and make public college free; all the way up to Eugene V. Debs' proposal for the "utter annihilation of the capitalist system and the total abolition of class rule."

But wherever you fall on this spectrum, it's a pleasure to welcome so many new people to the socialist movement.

Socialists on the march for climate justice in New York City

There's a lot to talk about, but I want to begin by urging you, if you've not already done so, to join an existing socialist organization or start one of your own. Being an "individual socialist" is like being a fish out of water. You can have the best analysis of the world as you read about what's happening on the Internet, but you have no power to do anything about it unless you're organized.

Some Starting Points for Socialists

How should you choose? I would argue that any group you consider joining or initiating should agree on these common tasks and shared responsibilities for all socialists:

First, we must do everything we can to agitate against each one of Trump's attacks, as well as every concession to him by his not-so-erstwhile opponents among the leaders of the Democratic Party.

We are in immediate need of united fronts to defend immigrants from deportation, safeguard abortion and reproductive rights, stand up against racist police violence, protect public education, fight for our unions and save the planet. Unity in struggle doesn't have to wait for unanimity of politics--even as each component force within our broad movement retains the right to respectfully, if forcefully, advocate for its own unique beliefs.

What you can do

If you're in Washington, D.C., to protest Trump on Inauguration Day weekend, Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Organization endorse and urge you to participate in the following:

January 20 at 7 a.m.
Inaugurate the Resistance: Mass Protest at Trump's Inauguration
Navy Memorial, Eighth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue
Find out more at the ANSWER website

January 20 at 4 p.m.
Meet the ISO gathering
Potter's House, 1658 Columbia Rd. NW

January 20 at 8 p.m.
The Anti-Inauguration
Featuring Naomi Klein, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Jeremy Scahill and others, a forum sponsored by Jacobin Magazine, Haymarket Books and Verso Books
Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW.
Tickets are free, but required for entry, doors open at 7 p.m.
Find out more at the Lincoln Theatre website

January 21 at 10 a.m.
Women's March on Washington
Gathering point at Independence Avenue and Third Street SW
Find out more at the Women's March website

Second, all socialists share a common duty to educate a new generation of activists about what those who have fought before have to teach us.

The socialist movement overflows with inspiring and ingenious lessons, and as the Russian revolutionary Lenin once put it, "Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement." Any prejudice against study and debate will doom us in advance. How can we hope to overturn the most powerful and destructive economic system in world history if we deny the wisdom of the past?

Furthermore, we aren't alone in our individual countries. Internationally, from Brazil to Greece to South Africa to Spain, socialists are building organizations and movements. Ours must be a global movement of solidarity and sharing.

Third, while we organize in the short term, we must learn to sustain movements and organizations.

Donald Trump is dangerous, but it isn't 1933--that is, we aren't on the verge of a fascist dictatorship taking power, as the Nazis did in Germany. Trump will do real damage, but he will also overreach and expose his vulnerabilities. And in the crises we know are coming, there will be opportunities to turn the tide.

But we should not be so naïve as to think that we will win quickly or so shortsighted as to trade away the organizations and movements we build for the promise of a simple "return to normalcy" under some status-quo Democratic administration.

We are in a decades-long fight for the future of humanity and the planet, and we must learn to act like it.

Having made these general points, I want to focus on a specific aspect of political strategy: Namely, what sort of socialist organization or party will strengthen, rather than smother, social and class struggles? This is not the only area up for debate, but I think it is a particularly relevant one today.

The Time to Resist Is Now

Let's begin with something all socialists should agree on: as the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." If you rely on the elite of society for social justice, you'll be waiting a long time. Decades of union busting, climate catastrophe and mass incarceration should have driven this point home.

Obviously, it's easier to invoke past struggles than organize new ones, and there is a danger that politicians will manipulate our legacy for their own purposes. Remember President Obama's inspiring references to suffrage and civil rights organizers? Or his more recent call for people to "grab a clipboard" and start organizing? In the end, his presidency relied more on drone strikes than knocking on doors.

Despite this--or, really, because of the consequences of disappointment in Obama--many people are developing a healthy appreciation for the necessity of organizing movements to change the world. Writing in The Guardian, Kate Aronoff rightly sounds the alarm that only by "mustering more unity and vision than progressives in the United States ever have" will we be able to confront Trump's reactionary agenda.

At the same time, Aronoff assumes that, like it or not, social movements have no choice but to turn to the Democratic Party when it comes time for elections. While this point of view can be argued forcefully and effectively by those honestly committed to radical change, I think it deserves to be challenged--and not only on tactical grounds.

Why? Here it's useful to recall Karl Marx's insight that workers and the oppressed must develop their own movements and struggles, and they must control their own political parties and organizations, in order to liberate themselves from the profit system.

If workers struggle for their own emancipation in the social sphere, but hand over politics and elections to (at best) marginally sympathetic leaders of a party financed by business interests, they will never learn how to run society collectively.

Socialism isn't simply the end "goal." It's not just a series of worthy reforms. It is a living movement in which ordinary people learn to organize democratically. Marx made the case that "for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men [and women] on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution."

To steal a phrase from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, for workers to create genuine socialism, the democratic means to organize and control their own movements and actions must be "baked in" to their own political party.

This, I would argue, ought to form the starting point for our discussion of how to understand the relationship between socialist organization and mass movements. It is, undoubtedly, a minority point of view today. In fact, Aronoff's view is broadly shared by many socialists in the U.S. today, even if there are important distinctions in their positions.

Can the Democratic Party Be Reformed?

First and foremost, supporters of Bernie Sanders advocate a close link between building movements and the success of the Democratic Party.

The socialist movement owes Sanders a debt of thanks for--in a rare instance of courage in American politics--making the forthright defense of his brand of socialism a topic of mainstream political discussion. For millions of people, Sanders has helped connect ideas of economic, social, racial and climate justice to the concept of socialism.

At the same time, he has a particular definition of the "political revolution." He proposes that unions and social movements expend their energy on participating in and reforming the Democratic Party. In a speech endorsing Rep. Keith Ellison to be chair of the Democratic National Committee, Sanders urged his supporters to "transform the Democratic Party from a top-down party to a bottom-up party, to create a grassroots organizations of the working families of this country, the young people of this country."

Now you might think that starting at the top of the Democratic Party is an odd place to begin building a "bottom-up" movement if the aim is to create a genuinely democratic party. The solution to this riddle lies in the strict limits that Sanders sets on the sorts of changes he thinks are needed in the Democratic Party.

Ellison's subsequent remarks make this abundantly clear. By all accounts one of the most liberal members of Congress, nevertheless, his plan to "reset" the Democrats consists of little more than "listening sessions" and making it possible for immigrants rights and Black Lives Matter activists to "express themselves electorally" when it comes time to vote.

And that day isn't far off, according to Ellison: "We're off to a good start because Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton combined to create the best platform the Democratic Party has ever head."

So for Sanders, joining the socialist movement means, in a fairly straightforward fashion, participating in the Democratic Party and working within its structures in the hopes of pressing it to adopt more progressive policies.

However, as Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, demonstrates, the Democratic Party isn't susceptible to easy change. Despite lots of public hand-wringing, for example, Senate Democrats continue to "curry favor with their corporate backers"--including potential 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Corey Booker, who joined Trump's most enthusiastic partisans in voting to ban the import of cheaper prescription medicines from Canada.

Time for Something New?

Unfortunately, understanding the political apparatus of the Democratic Party as a "field of struggle" for unions and social movements, as long-time organizer Bill Fletcher suggests, has a long and powerful tradition in the United States.

On the other hand, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, recently concluded, "I hold little hope that a political revolution will occur within the Democratic Party without a sustained outside movement forcing truly transformative change. I am inclined to believe that it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself."

Here, Alexander is pointing to a key link in the chain for socialists--that is, the goal should be to construct a political party that strengthens our social movements and advances working-class struggle. The starting point should not be "how can we reform the Democratic Party?" Rather, it ought to be how can we give that "sustained outside movement" a political voice of its own?

Fortunately, for the first time in decades, Sanders' campaign itself--even if we disagree with his decision to run as a Democrat--along with the experience of social movements from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock, and the inability of the Democratic Party to offer an inspiring alternative to Trump, have all combined to create a dynamic and multi-sided discussion about what next.

One of the most talked-about contributions to this conversation is "A Blueprint for a New Party," written by Jacobin magazine editorial board member Seth Ackerman.

His innovative and closely researched contribution begins by insisting that a "true working-class party must be democratic and member controlled. It must be independent--determining its own platform and educating around it." This is critical, as it breaks the cycle of subordinating working-class struggle and social movements to a party controlled by hostile powers.

Ackerman warns that traditional leftist notions of "working within the Democratic Party" cede "all real agency to professional politicians." In Ackerman's estimation, Sanders' Our Revolution group seems sadly poised to fall into the "trap" of "becoming a mere middleman, or broker, standing between a diffuse, unorganized progressive constituency and a series of ambitious progressive office-seekers."

As a way out of the electoral quicksand, Ackerman proposes a particular kind of "inside/outside" strategy in which he suggests we organize a working-class political party that uses the Democrats' ballot line where convenient, but remains formally independent--preserving its right to run on alternative ballot lines, for instance.

In other words, rather than the Democrats using social movements and unions for their own selfish purposes, Ackerman proposes that socialists turn the tables and use the Democrats.

Although intriguing, I would argue that Ackerman relies far too heavily on technical maneuvers, even putting a good deal of faith in a new party's ability to bend existing Federal Elections Commission regulations and Supreme Court decisions to our needs.

Yet the system doesn't just accidentally happen to be rigged. It's actively rigged. Any loopholes we might find in the short term could be quickly closed in time-honored bipartisan fashion. Defending their domination of "American democracy" is one of the few things that Democratic and Republican politicians agree on these days.

Aside from these legal questions, Ackerman himself expresses skepticism about whether or not "a significant part of the labor movement," in its current state, can be convinced to join in--a prerequisite for success in his opinion. One problem with this model, I believe, is that it puts the cart before the horse. The question is: Why isn't the labor movement, so badly mistreated by the Democrats, willing to strike out in a new direction?

Adolph Reed and Mark Dudzic, both leaders in the now defunct attempt to start a Labor Party in the U.S. in the 1990s and 2000s, suggest this is due to the "strategic defeat" of the labor movement itself over these last decades.

This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't answer the question of how to build a socialist alternative today--which takes us back to our question about the relationship between struggle and organization.

Working-Class Struggle Is the Key to Building a Mass Socialist Party

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor identifies a good place to start when she describes how the Black Lives Matter movement developed in response to racist police violence:

[T]he formation of organizations dedicated to fighting racism through mass mobilizations, street demonstrations and other direct actions was evidence of a newly developing Black left that could vie for leadership against more established--and more tactically and politically conservative--forces.

The Black political establishment, led by Obama, had shown over and over again that it was not capable of the most basic task: keeping Black children alive. The young people would have to do it themselves.

Taylor doesn't begin by asking how Black Lives Matter might impact existing liberal forces. Rather, she identifies how an entirely new force came into being. This is what is important in the first instance.

Applying this extraordinarily important lesson to the attacks we will face in the coming years, labor historian Kim Moody warns:

There will be resistance. Rather, there will be increased resistance. And this will offer new possibilities for organizing, even in a more hostile atmosphere. At the same time, many, including not a few on the socialist left, will run for cover in the Democratic Party's "Big Tent," arguing that now is not the time to take on the Democrats, that the great task is to elect a Democratic Congress, any Democratic Congress, in 2018 to rein in Trump just as the Republicans blocked Obama after 2010, and so on.

But such a political direction will only reinforce the Democrats' neoliberalism, digital-dependency and failed strategies. We had better bear in mind what this approach has not done for the past four decades and will not do in the coming years.

Nothing of what Taylor and Moody write should be construed to mean that elections don't matter. The point is that building socialist organization cannot begin within the confines of American electoral law and then work backwards from that. Instead, we must build up social movements and unions that eventually grow powerful enough to challenge--and break--the bipartisan duopoly's lock on "politics."

Along the way, socialists may support genuinely independent candidates and organize referendums, like those calling for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, for sanctuary cities, and so on.

It goes without saying that this is no easy task, but the potential for the revival of a mass socialist movement is just as alive today as it was back when Debs won a million votes for president in 1912. Any other disagreements aside, Chris Maisano of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) hits the nail on the head when he writes that:

a revival of working class organization is sine qua non for a broader revival of the Left...Continuing to see the working class in all its occupational, racial, ethnic, and sexual variety as the leading historic agency for radical change is not metaphysics--it's a recognition of the enduring realities of life under capitalism. The Next Left would do well to keep this in mind.

We are in for a rough ride in the coming years, but the truth that Maisano points to will only become more apparent as Trump grafts his macho nationalism and xenophobia onto the neoliberal order.

Objective circumstances will tend to discredit politics as usual in the eyes of millions. However, Trump's election also shows that if we don't organize a left-wing alternative, then despair and frustration can win the day. Organizing that alternative is our common challenge.

For my money, I hope you consider joining the International Socialist Organization because I believe the ISO clearly understands that socialist organization must flow from social and working-class struggle. We are dedicated to the three common tasks outlined above, and we are capable of putting our principles into action.

Besides that, the ISO stands by Rosa Luxemburg's belief that there is an "indissoluble tie" between reform and revolution. As she put it, "The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim."

Having said that, you should make an informed decision. Comrades from other organizations--such as DSA, Solidarity, Socialist Alternative, the Philly Socialists, Left Roots and the Kentucky Workers League, among others--are making real contributions to the revival of the socialist movement.

Political and tactical differences remain among the socialist movement. But that is nothing to fear. Disagreements can be debated fraternally and tested in practice on one simple condition: you join the socialist movement. We are not yet at the moment where a socialist party of tens of thousands can easily arise. However, there are indications that the necessary precursors--growing socialist organizations and rising struggle--are emerging.

Now is not the time to sit on the sidelines and hope history turns back from the abyss. Now is the time to join the fight for a socialist future.

Further Reading

From the archives