Getting organized for a socialist future

July 4, 2018

Many more people in the U.S. are interested in socialism today than in several generations. But what does that mean practically? Todd Chretien, editor of Eyewitnesses to the Russian Revolution, has some suggestions.


You can fill in the blank: the Muslim ban, immigrant family separation, tax cuts for billionaires, gutting the Environmental Protection Agency, wrecking Obamacare, rescinding protections for transgender public school students, saying he grabs women by the pussy. The list goes on and on.

If there’s a method to Trump’s madness, it’s whiplash and blitzkrieg: Attack all along the line, advance ruthlessly, keep the enemy off balance.

Fortunately, our side refuses to submit. Millions have taken to the streets — for women’s rights, against school violence, for science and climate justice. They’ve occupied airports and ICE offices, defended abortion clinics and confronted Trump’s Nazi fanboys in the streets of Charlottesville, Boston and Berkeley. Teachers in a half dozen so-called “red states” struck back.

Socialists on the march across the Brooklyn Bridge
Socialists on the march across the Brooklyn Bridge (Nikki Blazek | SW)

All this and more has thrown sand into the gears of Trump’s bigotry machine, but it has to be acknowledged that we’ve lost more than we’ve won, and as despised as Trump is, particularly with the crisis at the border today, more monstrosities lie ahead.

Amidst all this, an old seed has sprouted new shoots: socialism. Why?

The emergence of socialist ideas and organization is both a big surprise (in the land of McCarthy!), while simultaneously feeling long past due. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign spoke the word that had been on the tip of young people’s tongues for years, but he didn’t create the conditions that led so many to socialism. What did?

Always ready with a one-liner, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels quipped in the Communist Manifesto: “What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own gravediggers.”

If any set of human relations ever deserved to buy buried six feet under, it’s the free-market system. Today, millions of people sense that racism, sexism, environmental destruction, addiction, violence, homophobia, war, poverty, homelessness and hunger aren’t independent disasters, but rather are symptoms of the same disease.

Young people today feel this in their bones. As Meagan Day points out at Jacobin, teenagers are “discouraged” by current economic and social trends. That’s a good word to use because neoliberalism’s main political aim is to prevent young workers from being encouraged to feel fully human.

As Day suggests, fighting for health care, public schools and free higher education aren’t just points on a list of ideas drawn up by socialists. The struggle to win these demands can change what people think of themselves.

The socialist message is anti-capitalist — literally, we are against capitalists, both the individuals and the aggregate class — but it is also pro-worker. “You are more than just a buyer and a seller, a worker and a customer, a pawn of the anonymous rich,” as Day puts it. “You’re a valued member of this society, your future matters to the people around you, and you’re not alone.”

Capitalism is responsible for accelerating the worst threats to humanity and our planet. Yet it is not a force of nature nor a law of physics. It is a system, controlled by a class of people that aims to defend the status quo at all costs.

And if capitalism is a system reproduced by the bourgeoisie — thus, reproducing that class’s domination — then our side needs a systematic alternative that turns the world upside down. Or, more accurately, puts it right side up.

TRUMP’S AMERICA isn’t the first time that the system has spawned mass opposition.

Over the last couple hundred years, capitalism faced slave, peasant and Indigenous peoples’ revolts, alongside rudimentary workers’ resistance in the early decades of the 19th century. By 1848, the bourgeoisie confronted revolution on its home turf in Germany and France.

During ensuing decades, slavery in the United States, English colonialism in India and the industrial revolution produced new uprisings and the first attempt to unite the global socialist movement in the International Workingmen’s Association.

Another half century-long cycle of capitalist expansion in turn produced mass revolt among the working classes, culminating in the First World War and the 1917 Russian Revolution.

By that time, millions of people, from Germany to Italy to the United States, belonged to, or at least voted for, socialist parties of one stripe or another. In the decades to follow, mass socialist and communist parties spread to India, China, Indonesia, South Africa and beyond. Wherever capital came to rule, socialist resistance thrived, despite often withering repression.

Later in the 20th century, the global elite held its breath through periods in which its rule was put to the test — the last time being 1968, when student protests in Mexico, urban uprisings in the United States, and general strikes in France, Czechoslovakia and Pakistan, among other struggles, shook the system to its core.

Yet each time, our rulers survived the onslaught, sometimes turning to fascism to squash threats to their privilege (Germany in 1933, Spain in 1936, Chile in 1973), and sometimes offering up partial reforms to preserve their legitimacy and the system as a whole (parts of Western Europe after the Second World War).

Since the 1970s, global capital has run up a string of unprecedented victories, disrupting working-class traditions and all but obliterating socialism as a radical alternative. But just as in Marx’s day, the bourgeoisie enriching itself is hollowing out its political legitimacy.

THE COMING decades will not repeat historical experiences blow for blow, but the past does demonstrate political patterns that are sure to emerge to one degree or another as the radical left and the reactionary right grow in influence at the expense of the old mainstream.

Along the way, the new socialist movement will face an old dilemma: Should it work to reform the system or to overturn it?

The great Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg proposed that:

people who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.

Luxemburg was right, but her position can be taken as a reason for disdaining all struggles for reform while posing revolution as an abstract solution to capitalism’s ills, which is a recipe for isolation and irrelevancy.

Luxemburg, however, makes the case that rather than being conceived of as opposites, reform and revolution must be linked in a very specific manner:

Can we contrapose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social Democracy [the socialist movement] an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.

In the U.S., this dynamic of reform or revolution has often centered around the question of whether the left should support, reform or reject the Democratic Party. Socialist Worker’s case is that rather than providing a shovel for capitalism’s gravediggers, the party has long been the “graveyard of social movements.”

THIS IS an important debate that has grown more concrete as a result of Sanders’ insurgent primary campaign — and now DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in New York.

Not to give short shrift to that discussion — which is taking place at now — but this isn’t the only challenge facing the socialist movement.

Opinion polls show that a majority of those under 30 reject capitalism, and millions are broadly sympathetic to what we might call “socialistic” policies. Yet opinion polls are no substitute for a fighting socialist movement.

Fortunately, tens of thousands of people are translating their interest in socialist concepts into membership in socialist organizations. Most notably, since Trump’s election, approximately 30,000 people have joined the Democratic Socialists of America, cutting the group’s median age from 68 to 33 in the process.

Only a minority of these people participates consistently, but even if only 5,000 or 8,000 are actively involved, that represents the socialist movement’s most significant growth in the U.S. since the early 1970s.

Add to that another 2,500 or so activists among revolutionary socialist organizations — of which the International Socialist Organization, which publishes Socialist Worker, provides the plurality — plus the popularity of socialist publications and publishers such as Haymarket Books, Jacobin, In These Times, International Socialist Review and Viewpoint, among others, and you can see the outline of a powerful force.

Having said that, we need a sense of proportion. Forty years of neoliberalism has wrecked the trade union movement in the U.S., rolled back the tide on civil rights and raised up reactionary populism. Our side is, as yet, no match for our overlords.

HOW WILL our movement grow? How will we become a force? At the risk of oversimplification, here are three critical factors to watch.

First, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass said it best: “If there is no struggle, there can be no progress.”

Douglass was talking about slave rebellions, the Underground Railroad and approaching Civil War. In our days, rampant police murders, Trump’s call to end due process at the border and escalating inter-imperialist rivalries all demand genuinely radical struggles.

Among these, socialists must pay special attention to bringing back the strike weapon. No other form of social protest so effectively expresses workers’ power because it hits what the bosses hold most dear — their revenue stream and profits — and it tends to bring co-workers together on a common field of struggle.

Workplaces are segregated by race, gender and immigration status, but they are less segregated than neighborhoods, schools and churches. Thus, the workplace is a crucial arena in which oppression can be challenged in a common struggle against exploitation.

Second, we must redouble our emphasis on socialist education. Struggle teaches, but there is no substitute for hitting the books.

Facebook feeds and introductory articles like this one can inform and agitate, but a sustainable socialist movement requires thousands of activists to commit to the hard work of assimilating the historical and theoretical inheritance that our revolutionary forebears bequeathed to us at great cost.

Study can degenerate into academic myopia, but it doesn’t have to. We can draw a line between intellectual work in the service of mass movements and intellectualism in service of itself. The late French socialist Daniel Bensaïd reminds us that “militancy serves as a barrier, an antibody against speculative temptations.”

Third, we must aim to build socialist organizations that stand on their own two feet.

Nationwide political organization will fortify our ability to generalize struggles and put ideas into action. Building a common party based on working-class struggle and socialist aspirations provides a framework in which the working class can fight for its political independence from the class that exploits it.

Such a party requires years of hard work and cannot simply be proclaimed. But we can work collectively toward that goal, even as we debate strategy and theory.

THE POLITICAL decisions that several thousands of socialists make today will condition the choices available for the tens of thousands who will become active socialist fighters in the years to come. There will be a multitude of ideas and trends, but currents and organizations will crystallize, and the relative strength, creativity and tenacity of these trends will determine what is possible.

Some in our movement will argue to reject a revolutionary perspective. Vivek Chibber advocated this position in Jacobin: “[P]recisely because a ruptural strategy isn’t on the table, we must start down the road of social democracy and then to democratic socialism.”

Among active socialists today, this probably represents the majority view, and at its best, it emphasizes the need to fight in the here and now. Yet just as in the past, it deserves to be challenged. As Danny Katch wrote for Socialist Worker:

[T]he question of revolution today isn’t about the distant final climax. It’s really about whether we see our greatest power under capitalism as being our vote or our labor — and whether the society we’re fighting for looks like this one, but with a better government, or is something fundamentally more liberatory and participatory.

It isn’t enough to say that debates will be settled in practice, because the socialist movement’s practice will be influenced by what thousands of activists believe, and the political choices they make will shape its direction. Theory cannot replace action, but it can be a guide. Choose wisely.

Sign up with the socialists and think these concerns through for yourself. In the process, help us organize, debate and prepare for the battles to come. You still have nothing to lose but your chains.

Further Reading

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