What kind of party for the new socialist movement?

September 28, 2018

Todd Chretien looks at the challenges facing socialists today and what they mean for how we organize, in an article based on a presentation at the Socialism 2018 conference.

DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISTS of America (DSA) members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar’s recent election victories are bringing into focus important discussions within the new socialist movement.

On the one hand, Ocasio-Cortez’s open embrace of Bernie Sanders’ strategy of fighting for influence within the Democratic Party, and her willingness to sacrifice clear anti-imperialist politics into the bargain, has led revolutionary socialists such as those in the International Socialist Organization to critique her moves in this direction — a critique shared by not a few members of DSA.

On the other hand, for her part, Salazar has spoken clearly and powerfully about the need to empower workers and fight for socialism.

At the same time, Salazar and some of her most committed supporters — for instance, the editors of the newly launched Socialist Callexplicitly reject what they call “insurrectionary” strategies. The Call cites the work of left-wing author and Catalyst editor Vivek Chibber, who goes even further, dismissing not only “insurrection,” but even a “rupture” with capitalism and the ruling class’s state. As he explained in Jacobin:

Our strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach. For the foreseeable future, left strategy has to revolve around building a movement to pressure the state, gain power within it, change the institutional structure of capitalism, and erode the structural power of capital.

On the march in Chile
On the march in Chile (Fran[zi]s[ko] Vicencio)

Thus, old debates about reform and revolution are re-emerging.

These debates are not simply about what we should do 10 or 20 years from now. They have an immediate impact on how different socialist trends conceive of political organization.

For instance, while Salazar and the Socialist Call are honestly and actively challenging the power of the Democratic Party establishment while preparing the ground for a new socialist party, they have adopted an organizational model that will, in my opinion, endanger those goals — namely, tactical involvement in the Democratic Party and an undue focus on electoral campaigns.

By contrast, I believe the new socialist movement should consider a different conception of party organization — historically referred to as a “vanguard party” — while offering a general framework that allows this debate to be conducted amid united struggles, and even as members of common broader left political parties.


What Is a Vanguard Party?

A vanguard party has nothing to do with how it is commonly perceived: as a minority acting on behalf of the majority.

Rather, it is exactly what the phrase implies: A part-y of the working class that binds together the best fighters who are convinced of the need to destroy imperialism, sexism, racism and all forms of oppression, and to aim for socialism.

The size and scale of such a party matters. There must be a vibrant social layer of workers who authentically act as day-to-day leaders in all aspects of the class struggle. Historically speaking, this has only ever been created by sustained high levels of radical social and class struggles.

This vanguard layer isn’t conjured into being by a party. Rather, the creation of such a party is only historically possible when the vanguard has arisen through mass struggle. But if the party is an impossibility without the vanguard, then capitalist power will destroy or dissolve the vanguard social layer if it cannot form a coherent and powerful party (or parties).

At a minimum, a vanguard party in a country the size of the U.S. must consist of tens of thousands of active socialist revolutionaries — and to contend for power, those numbers must increase by a factor of ten or more.

The Bolsheviks in Russia were the most successful example of a vanguard party in history, growing from 25,000 members to 350,000 over the course of the revolutionary year of 1917.

In the U.S., the Socialist Party grew to 100,000 while the Industrial Workers of the World led radical strikes in large numbers before the First World War. The Communist Party reached 85,000 at the height of the Great Depression years.

A new vanguard social layer emerged during the 1960s and 1970s, creating its own revolutionary organizations in the midst of Black Power, women’s, antiwar and LGBTQ movements, as well as a powerful wave of mass strikes. But repression and political discord prevented these elements from fusing into a united vanguard party.

Since then, the ruling class has ground the social vanguard of the 1960s and 1970s into the dirt through union busting, mass incarceration and neoliberal atomization.

The evidence is mounting today that the tide is turning. As encouraging as this is, however, our movement must still learn how to win.


The High Price of Defeat

The Bolsheviks proved in practice that the vanguard of the working class can form its own political party and defeat the capitalist class. And if it happened once, it can happen again.

Of course, many people in the new socialist movement are skeptical about 1917’s relevance in the 21st century. But this is not simply an academic debate.

It matters because if 1917 demonstrated the powerful combination of working-class self-emancipation and a vanguard party leading to a victorious revolution, then there are even more examples of defeated revolutions. And unfortunately, if you make half a revolution, you don’t get half of what you want. You get all reaction.

The classic example of this dynamic began in the years after Russian Revolution, when an uprising of the German working class was ultimately defeated. The German ruling class killed tens of thousands of socialist workers, including assassinating its most important leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, in 1919.

For the next 15 years, revolutionary socialists faced off against a growing fascist movement — until this battle was finally decided in the Nazis’ favor with Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933.

This ferocious pattern was repeated in 1973 in the battle between the elected socialist President Salvador Allende and the dictator who overthrew him, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Chile’s bourgeoisie didn’t turn to the CIA and the military to slaughter its working-class enemies because they felt strong. They did so because they were afraid.

Thus, if our movement is prepared to fight, we had better be prepared to win.

Alongside these bloody examples, reaction can sometimes take the form of a partially successful reform movement coming to power and adapting itself to serve the system.

The decades-long fight to overturn apartheid in South Africa represented a political revolution if there ever was one, yet capitalism survived. Twenty-five years later, while a small Black elite — including some of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement — has enriched itself, poverty, unemployment, homelessness and a devastating AIDS crisis haunt the vast majority of Black South African workers.

In Brazil, mass strikes and a radical trade union movement forced military rulers from power in the mid-1980s. The Workers Party led strikes and struggles and accumulated electoral victories over the course of the next three decades, before its presidential candidates Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff won four national elections between 2002 and 2014.

While in power, the party enacted anti-poverty reforms, but this came at the price of bureaucratization, the expulsion of revolutionary socialists from its midst and creeping corruption. When Brazil’s powerful bourgeoisie impeached Rousseff in 2016 in a parliamentary coup, the party was unable to defend itself, and today, Lula sits in prison.

In Greece, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) rode a wave of general strikes to power in early 2015. That summer, a majority of Greeks voted “no” to the European Union’s blackmail that the SYRIZA government must continue to accept debilitating austerity measures.

Yet Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras ignored the vote and signed the so-called “Memorandum” that continued drastic cuts in social spending and mass privatization.

The lesson here is that short-term gains for reformist forces can lock a movement into compromises with the system that — sooner or later — limit, or even reverse and throw back, further gains.


Accumulating Revolutionary Forces

Today, the elements for a new vanguard social layer are in early stages of development. This confronts revolutionaries with the dilemma of how to organize under conditions that are not yet ripe for a mass party.

Facing a similar problem some 50 years ago, revolutionary socialist Peter Camejo argued that we constantly confront the twin dangers of opportunism and sectarianism.

This includes a tension between political homogeneity and size — in other words, generally speaking, the bigger the revolutionary force, the greater the array of opinion that will exist within it. Fifty very smart people can accomplish this or that if they are absolutely unified, while 50,000 people may not be able to get anything done if they disagree about everything.

How socialists balance size and social force against clarity of vision, tactical capacity and theoretical unity can only be answered in practice.

One way to get our bearings is to study international examples.

In Greece, the International Workers Left (DEA) participated in SYRIZA, but always insisted on maintaining their organization as an independent factor, refusing to liquidate into SYRIZA as individuals. Even when Tsipras attempted to force them to dissolve, cease publishing their newspaper and stop speaking publicly as members of DEA, they refused.

This meant that when Tsipras betrayed the “no” vote and signed the austerity Memorandum, DEA and other leftists retained the ability to act in a coordinated manner, denouncing Tsipras’ actions and preparing for the next round of struggle — though, of course, the SYRIZA leadership’s betrayal was a heavy blow.

The revolutionary socialist organization Resistência in Brazil is pursuing a similar strategy.

In the light of the Workers Party bureaucratization and adoption of the neoliberal framework, the Party of Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) is standing its own candidate against both the right wing and Lula’s chosen successor. PSOL is comprised of some elements that share a political outlook similar to Tsipras’ in Greece, but also significant currents of revolutionary socialists.

Resistência comrades aim to rally these revolutionary forces, while building up PSOL more broadly, but doing so in such a way as to avoid the bureaucratization that eventually doomed the Workers Party.

In Spain, the Anticapitalistas group is working within the broader Podemos party.

Although Podemos represents a real challenge to Spain’s two-party system, when the movement for self-determination exploded in Catalonia last year, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias refused to support a concrete declaration of independence. On the other hand, the Anticapitalistas strongly backed the movement and are now fighting to prevent Iglesias from dragging Podemos further to the right.

Like DEA and Resistência, they have retained their own organizational integrity and, therefore, have accumulated the strength to either fight internally or launch a new initiative.

In each instance, the precondition for revolutionary socialists withstanding the pressure to either stand aside (thereby admitting that they are not up to the task) or dissolve into the broader movement (thereby admitting that they lack the force of their own convictions) was a vibrant culture of political debate and a willingness to unite around daring initiatives.

Leadership in organizations like this must come from the most long-standing, as well as the newest, members, and it can never rest on past accomplishments. Rather, it must be earned by proposing effective strategies and concrete initiatives that, as someone once said, answer the burning question of: What is to be done?

Here in the United States, Trump has accelerated the underlying sense of crisis and radicalization in society. A growing number of socialist candidates are running for office, while strikes by teachers and, more recently, hotel workers demonstrate power on the picket line.

The outcry against Brett Kavanaugh is stoking feminist consciousness. Add this to Black Lives Matter, #AbolishICE and the struggle for climate change, and we have a recipe for social upheaval.

And keep in mind that all of this comes in the waning days of an economic boom that has seemed more like a recession to masses of working-class people. The next recession will inject a whole new sense of urgency and anger into an already volatile mix.

In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Fredric Jameson wrote that it’s easier for people to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. After decades of defeat, it’s sometimes easier for revolutionary socialists to imagine a distant workers’ uprising than the possibilities for building a revolutionary party in the coming years.

Yet this is precisely the goal on which we must set our sights. Either we find a way to convince large parts of the new socialist movement to join in a common struggle to construct a part-y of the working class that aims overturn the system — or the capitalists, again frightened by our partially realized power, will seek their revenge.

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