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Principles and tactics: Socialists utilizing the Democratic Party ballot-line

 

 

Contributions to a debate by Paul Le Blanc, Rob Lyons & Matthew Strauss

 

Preface by Paul Le Blanc

 

With the one-sentence preface “these ten points indicate where my thinking is now on certain questions,” I initiated a tempest in the little teapot of my FaceBook page, although the storm – such as it was – swept through other sites and beyond the virtual reality of the worldwide web.  

 

What generated the debate were ten fairly succinct points on how I felt revolutionary socialists should respond to socialists running on the ballot-line of the Democratic Party (the most famous so far being Congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and the related question of the Bernie Sanders campaign.  Many had assumed I would express “revolutionary rejection” – and the fact that I expressed something different astonished many.

 

The emoji-count on my own FaceBook page indicated (as of 10:30 am on Bastille Day) 125 people liked what I posted and 12 people loved it –in contrast to what I take to be negative reactions: 5 registering a shocked “wow,” 3 offering tears, 3 expressing rage, and one laughing in my face. It is also clear to me that not everyone who read what I wrote chose to click an emoji. 

 

In fact, the actual discussion transcended the superficiality of icons, although non-iconic superficiality was not entirely absent. Considerable disagreement was expressed with what I had to say.  Some of my FaceBook friends went beyond strongly-stated disagreement, and demonstrated – through a mean-spiritedness that startled me – that they were hardly actual “friends” at all. Better than that, however, were numerous brief statements, as well as somewhat longer statements, that were critical but which struck me as part of a valuable discussion regarding what socialists should do in the here-and-now.  I sought to respond, respectfully and with genuine interest and gratitude, to such comradely criticism. 

 

There were definitely a significant number of very thoughtful criticisms and questions. Early on, however, one specific comrade stood out in the discussion – Rob Lyons of Socialist Action – because he sought to offer a sustained and systematic critique, point by point.  After I responded to his substantial intervention, he responded in a manner that helped advance the discussion even further. There was a process of helpful clarifications that led to a narrowing of presumed differences, allowing for a sharper, more focused identification of the actual disagreement.  Neither of us pretends to have had our final say here, but it seems to me that our interchange – in part because it is fairly systematic – may be helpful in clarifying some of the issues in this debate. And so I have gathered our back-and-forth together with the initial ten points. 

 

Another stand-out contribution was that of Matthew Strauss.  Wrestling with what I had to say, and with the swirl of responses and counter-responses, he did something unusual in this particular discussion.  He sought to restate, in his own words, the actual content of my initial ten points. Then he sought to unpack what seemed to him the actual meaning of those points and consider how these might relate to the revolutionary socialist convictions that I have consistently articulated over the years, and which I have never renounced.  In doing this, he neither “proves” the correctness of my position nor necessarily expresses his own agreement with it. But what he has done also contributes, in my opinion, to a clarification of the issues being debated. I am therefore also including it in the present little collection; since he refers to my comments on the Rosa Luxemburg panel of the Socialism 2019 conference, that is added as an appendix. 

 

To make reading through this a bit easier, with Rob’s and Matthew’s approval, I have added titles (and with my own contributions also subtitles), and have also done a bit of proofreading and very light editing.  

Socialists, the Democratic Party and the Sanders campaign

By Paul  Le Blanc

 

1. Revolutionary socialists should remain independent of the Democratic Party – it has historically been under the control of partisans of capitalism and imperialism, and its internal structures and dynamics ensure that this will not change. Socialists working within that context have traditionally compromised themselves fatally, and the Democratic Party, with phony friendship and the lure of practical achievement, has always sought to dilute and incapacitate real struggles for social and economic justice.

 

2. We are facing a new situation – a spreading and deepening crisis of capitalism coupled with a widespread phenomenon of open socialists making use of the Democratic Party ballot-line in order to help build an explicitly socialist movement. It would be a mistake for revolutionary socialists to deny the reality that this has created a mass left pole in the mainstream of US politics, surely inadequate but definitely there.

 

3. Openly socialist candidates who have a chance of getting elected, even when running on the Democratic Party ballot-line, should receive at least critical support from revolutionary socialists. The criticisms should be worded so that they make sense to other supporters of those candidates, and should focus on erroneous positions (or silences) of the candidates, advanced not as denunciations but as important and helpful correctives. The point is to build socialist consciousness and stir critical thinking among more and more people – into the thousands and millions.

 

4. When openly socialist candidates who have gotten onto the Democratic Party ballot-line are running in general elections, it makes sense for revolutionary socialists to vote for them and encourage others to do likewise – not as Democrats, but as socialists. At the same time, it makes sense to build independent, non-electoral social movements fighting against all forms of oppression and exploitation, calling on the candidates (especially if they win) to support their just demands and to be accountable to them.

 

5. The Bernie Sanders campaigns of 2016 and of 2019 have been open to valid criticisms (and such criticisms should be expressed openly). But these campaigns have been an expression of a broad and deep radicalization in US society, and have also helped dramatically in generating socialist thought in the political mainstream. As such, they are worthy of critical support by revolutionary socialists.

 

6. Sanders is qualitatively different from all other “progressive” candidates for President in the Democratic Party, because he openly criticizes capitalism and advances socialism as an alternative. The inadequacies of how he defines things are worth criticizing. But he is seen as an enemy by the pro-capitalist leaders of the Democratic Party, and they will do all that they can to defeat him. In this context, revolutionary socialists should support him, however critically.

 

7. Sanders running in the primaries will help generate mass socialist consciousness. Sanders winning will pose intense dilemmas – because the ruling class (in the Democratic and Republican parties, in the media, in the military, in the entire economy) are absolutely against him, and there is not yet a mass socialist movement powerful enough to overcome this immense hostility. This creates the possibilities either of (a) capitulation, defeat and demoralization, or (b) intense struggles which we will quite possibly lose, but which -- because there is uncompromising struggle for a better future -- will leave a powerful residue of intense anger, militancy, and increasingly revolutionary spirit.

 

8. In the very unlikely event that Sanders wins the Democratic nomination for President, revolutionary socialists should support him and campaign hard for him – along the lines of points #2 and #3 above. It is highly unlikely that Sanders himself will be capable of providing revolutionary leadership, which necessitates frank but intelligently expressed criticisms from revolutionary socialists, and also makes building non-electoral movements and struggles particularly important – within the context of working hard for his electoral victory.

 

9. In the unlikely event that Sanders wins the Presidency, revolutionary socialists should be prepared for intensified struggles (in some cases perhaps life and death struggles) and for the quite possible defeat that will, if engaged in effectively, increase the radicalization among the 99 percent – and provide a basis for deepening consciousness and future struggle.

 

10. The relatively short-term tactical orientation outlined above should be seen within the framework of the classical revolutionary Marxist strategic orientation, which is dependent on the existence of a significant layer of the working class, with a socialist consciousness, being ready and increasingly organized to fight against oppression and exploitation. A central focus for revolutionary socialists today must be to help bring this into existence.

Critique of the Ten Points 

By Rob Lyons

 

I always reflect on anything Paul LeBlanc writes, (and that I have read), as his manner of expression promotes the need for a serious analysis. So, when he posts publically a controversial position, knowing full well it will provoke a range of responses, it is well worth analyzing it, reading closely its content. So, in response to his thinking, I make the following points, in two parts. 

 

Part 1:

 

1. His point one, one the face of it, is a reiteration of the nature of the Democratic Party, and the trap that it represents for socialists as an arena for their work. But it is notable by the absence of what is the core issue for revolutionaries, since the days of Marx and Engels.

 

Paul avoids the central reason for NOT working within the Democratic Party, that is the need to draw the sharpest line of demarcation between bourgeois political formations, and those political organizations which highlight and point the way towards CLASS INDEPENDENCE. Paul fails to deal with this question, the sowing of illusions in the parties of imperialism, that is in the key political issue in the creation of mass, revolutionary socialist consciousness. 

 

That big ole elephant just cannot be ignored, however.

 

2. Paul argues that there is a new situation, required by the creation of a mass left pole of attraction. First of all, one could very well argue whether or not this is a new situation, or a modern day reprise of the debates surrounding the use of the Democratic Farmer-Labor ballot line and candidate status. I hold to the latter viewpoint, because we have seen a series of radicalizations expressed in the Democratic Party and its iterations since those days and that of the Non-Partisan League in North Dakota. 

 

Paul is an historian, and knows very well how many times the "this time its differtent" scenario has been trotted out by a reformist, and social democratic left wing minority of the DP. Reaching back to FDR, and stretching forward through the Kennedy's, McCarthy, McGovern, Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition, to Obama and now Sanders, the political hype around these real and most often fake progressives, consists of an important ideological component shaping the dominant political discourse, presenting these phenomena as a real and almost attainable goal worth pursuing for those interested in achievable change. Change we can believe in.

 

The second issue raised in Paul's point two is what he terms the creation of a mass, leftward moving pole of attraction, which the revolutionary socialist left needs to engage with. This needs serious questioning. Other than the fact that the DSA has a paper membership of 50,000 more or less, with a very few exceptions the primary focus of that membership appears to be electoral activity,m beating the drums for Bernie, or activists from other political traditions seeking to influence these DSA folks, or to recruit them to their own tendencies.

 

But I have yet to see any serious study of the class composition of these DSA members, their occupational status, and their overall level of activism.

 

3. Paul's point three and point four are where the rubber meets the road. His advocating a vote for Democrats, of whatever variety of social democrat and reformist, separates him from the lessons of the USA left: No votes for the parties of imperialism, ever. His capitulation on this issue, along with Todd Chrestien, is a step backward for the US left.

 

I use the term capitulation in a deliberate, but not a moralizing way. The ideology of North American imperialism has its philosophical roots in British empiricism and pragmatism. It exerts a powerful and insidious method of shaping the perceptions of the world around us, and its methods of promulgation and messaging have been well documented. Its pragmatic component tells us to be practical and deal with the issues that its empirical component highlights. 

 

The fact that this discussion is taking place at all is proof of this, for the electoral circus which constitutes US politics is shaping the discourse of a revolutionary left weak in theory and weaker still in organizational capacity. The fact that an internationally renowned Marxist historian would advocate a vote for the prime party of global imperialism, shows to what a sad state of affairs that left has degenerated. 

 

It is perfectly pertinent at this point to ask Paul: so what is the difference between your position and that of the CPUSA? Popular Front-ism, anyone?

 

4. Points 5 to 8 can be challenged on a few different basis. Paul asserts that Sanders is different, and that his candidacy will generate a mass socialist consciousness. It is true that Sanders uses the "S: word, but Paul knows full well that the socialism of Sanders advocates is nothing more than a welfare-state capitalism, imperialism with free health care. To try and argue that this constitutes 'mass socialist consciousness' requires a deliberate bastardization of what constitutes socialism.

 

Many commentators have already challenged the notion that Sanders is somehow different, pointing out his similarities to that other left-wing imperialist, FDR. To support Sanders is to support an imperialist- full stop, point, set and match. I would really ask Paul to consider carefully his support for a Sanders candidacy. The younger comrades of the ISO do not need someone of Paul's stature to sow illusions in the ability of imperialists to act in the interests of the working class. 

 

5. I find Paul's point number 9 incomprehensible, despite rereading it multiple times. He appears to me to be saying that the level of class struggle will be held in abeyance until the results of the US primaries and national election are known, if Sanders wins. If such is the case, I think the wave of strikes occurring in a whole number of sectors is acting independently of the activities of Sander's supporters, and that the realities of US capitalism's drive to force down wages and the living standards of US citizens is itself independent of the electoral cycle.

 

6. Point number 10 is the point of most interest to me. Let me phrase it as I understand it: the present political conjuncture provides the revolutionary left an opportunity to enter into a mass reformist political organization, and because of the political dynamics within the Democratic Party, an ideological crisis will help crystallize the emergence of a mass revolutionary vanguard pole of attraction which will, in a relatively short period of time, break with the main party of North American imperialism.

 

I think that fairly paints the position of Paul and his fellow travellers into the DSA. He argues that that is the way to 'engage' with the Sanderistas and those moving to the left. It is fair then to ask Paul, given the crucial importance to not giving one iota of support to the political representatives of US imperialism, of whether or not there are other ways of engaging with this leftward moving mass? Or, given that there is general agreement that since the 2008 financial melt down, the growing crisis of confidence in the system and its consequent radicalization provide a different and more productive way of intervening into the burgeoning mass movement?

 

Wouldn't it be more important to create a class struggle pole of teachers in the two main educators associations in the US, than putting all the eggs into a Jeff Sharkey basket, a mover and shaker in the Chicago DSA? Isn't it more important to intervene into the Teamsters for a Democratic Union fight against the Hoffa version of the labor lieutenants of capital? Isn't it more important to build a Hands Off Venezuela movement, to show the left ward moving mass that the enemy of the peoples of Latin America are the same people they want to elect to Congress?

 

In other words, when one gets bogged down into the DSA's engagement with the electoral circus which passes for bourgeois democracy in an ever shrinking portion of the US electorate, one has to give up any pretensions of "building social movements". There is no indication that the DSA is interested in building any, including the fight for single payer, but instead relies on a strategic orientation of electing imperialist politicians.

 

And that, my friend Paul, is what your political position, stripped of its 'socialist consciousness' sleight-of-hand, ends up being boiled down to.  

Towards a mass socialist movement: response to Rob Lyons 

By Paul Le Blanc 

 

I appreciate your effort to offer a serious-minded critique, Rob. I will work on dealing with various points you raise, but it will take a little time.

 

People’s front, class independence, new realities and timing

 

You write: “what is the difference between your position and that of the CPUSA?” You add coyly: “Popular Front-ism, anyone?” The position of the CPUSA historically since 1935 (setting aside the Progressive Party interval of the late 1940s) has learned toward an immersion in the Democratic Party, supporting pro-capitalist liberals, calling for a bloc of the center-left against the far-right (often defined “liberally” as more or less moderate-to-conservative Republicans). That is not my position. I am not in favor of that. 

 

As you indicate, the CPUSA line flows from the People’s Front or Popular Front perspective, developed under Stalin in 1935, articulated by Georgi Dimitroff at the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International. Dimitroff argued that the choice before humanity is not communism vs. capitalism but instead is between democratic capitalism and fascism. That is not my standpoint. He argued that communists and socialists must for some time to come ally themselves not only with each other but also with liberal capitalist politicians. That is not my standpoint. I am not in favor of "supporting the Democrats" - I am in favor of supporting, in this specific conjuncture, socialists utilizing the Democratic Party ballot-line. I do not believe this is open-ended, let alone permanent. I think it makes sense for now, but the dynamics of the situation will necessarily and fairly quickly shift.

 

Whether I am right or wrong in what I put forward, it is not the position of the CPUSA or of the People’s Front.

 

I believe what you call the "ole elephant in the room" about class independence is dealt with in my point #1, so I admit that I am confused by the assertion that I have ignored it. 

 

The two criticisms made about point #2 are that (a) the situation we face is by no means new (there have been leftish candidates running as Democrats before), and that (b) I fail to provide a class analysis of DSA. 

 

(a) I disagree that there is nothing new. Setting aside the current realities of the current capitalist crisis and radicalization, and keeping things simple for purposes of space, it is a fact that neither FDR, nor the Kennedy's, nor McCarthy, nor McGovern, not Jesse Jackson, nor Obama brought explicitly socialist ideas into the political mainstream - so that is different. 

 

(b) DSA is not the focus of my article, but if we do a class analysis of it (and even more of those who have voted for Sanders and the other socialists running on the Democratic Party ballot-line), I believe we will find the majority social composition conforms to Engels's 1888 footnote in the Communist Manifesto when he defines working class. I note that Rob doesn't call for a similar sociological analysis (or even a membership count) of any other left-wing groups in the United States - but I am inclined to think, small as they are, that their memberships also tend to be part of one or another sector of the working class.

 

Regarding my points #3 and #4, “where the rubber meets the road,” Rob makes three points, if I understand him right (leaving aside the confusing philosophical references). One is that I advocate “a vote for Democrats, of whatever variety of social democrat and reformist.” A second is that the Democratic Party is a party of imperialism. A third is that I am advocating “a vote for the prime party of global imperialism.” I think Rob’s second point is on-target: the Democratic Party is a party of imperialism. The first and third points strike me as being off-target. I make it clear that I favor voting for open socialists (not any variety of reformist) who are running on the ballot-line of the Democratic Party, that I favor voting for these specific candidates as socialists not as Democrats (and certainly not for the Democratic Party as such), and that I favor critical support – which, for example, would involve criticizing any bending toward war or imperialism by any such candidates.

 

To repeat what I emphasized in my refutation of the charge that I am advocating a People’s Front, I do not believe this situation is open-ended, let alone permanent. I think it makes sense for now, but the dynamics of the situation will necessarily and fairly quickly shift. And that is related to the unfolding of the ongoing capitalist crisis, and also to the capitalist and imperialist nature of the Democratic Party, which will not allow such a socialist challenge to continue. (If it comes to pass that the socialists in question decide to go along with the capitalist and imperialist dictates of the party leadership, the situation will also shift, as they lose their radicalizing base.) 

 

Imperialism, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders

 

The opening section of Rob’s Part Two, if we sort out all that is imbedded in the rhetoric, starts by making five points. One is that Sanders’s public definition of socialism does not go beyond welfare state capitalism (which is true). Another is that capitalism cannot be separated from imperialism (which is true). A third is that Sanders is therefore an imperialist – supporting “imperialism with health care” (which seems to me to be false, verging on being simply a debater’s trick). A fourth point is either that (a) this is what I mean by “mass socialist consciousness” (which is false) or (b) that this is the only kind of “mass socialist consciousness” that can arise among the mass of Sanders supporters (which is false) or (c) both. 

 

Building on this, Lyons goes on to offer four additional points. One is that FDR was a left-wing imperialist (half right, in my opinion – but an imperialist he certainly was), a second is that some commentators have noted similarities between FDR and Sanders (which is true), and a third is that Sanders is a left-wing imperialist (half right, in my opinion – though he is certainly left-wing). The fifth point is that “the younger comrades of the ISO do not need someone of Paul's stature to sow illusions in the ability of imperialists to act in the interests of the working class” (which is certainly true, although the meaning Rob gives to these words slanders younger comrades and, if I understand him right, slanders me).

 

A key issue in what Rob argues (or as he puts it, “full stop, point, set and match”) is that Sanders is an imperialist. From all that I can see, this is not the case, if one means consciously embracing and advocating imperialism, which I define as economic expansion beyond the borders of one’s own country to secure markets, raw materials, and investment opportunities for the purpose of furthering the capital accumulation process, if need be – and, in truth, actually – at the expense of the great majority of the world’s people. It may be that Rob would agree that Sanders is not actually an imperialist in this sense (which FDR certainly was). It might be that Rob means either (a) that by defining socialism as welfare state capitalism he is, at least inadvertently, giving support to a system that is inherently imperialist (which is true), or (b) that he sometimes doesn’t fight against, or even goes along with, aspects of US foreign policy which are part of the imperialist system (which is true), or (c) both. All of this explains part of why I repeatedly talk about CRITICAL support, and emphasize the importance of openly criticizing errors and limitations in the positions of Sanders and other socialists utilizing the Democratic Party ballot-line. 

 

What appear to be assumptions in the way Rob advances his argument are three falsehoods. One is that the purpose of Sanders’s efforts is to sucker a majority of people who might go socialist to instead support capitalism and imperialism. A second is that the actual thrust of what Sanders is saying to people is that they should support capitalism and imperialism. A third is that the entire dynamic under discussion simply involves masses of people passively accepting whatever Sanders thinks or says. It may be that Rob doesn’t state his position as baldly as this because he would agree, at least to some extent, that these things are not entirely true. Against them, I want to say what I think is entirely true. I will do that at the start of the next section of this response.

 

The Sanders campaign: Advancing imperialism or socialist consciousness? 

 

The reason that masses of radicalizing people (overwhelmingly working class) are responding to the Sanders campaign is that they are being hurt and angered by the workings of the capitalist system as it enters a period of multiple crises. These crises give rise to struggles in which some of them are participating, and that also stimulates among them an openness to new explanations, new thinking, serious consideration even of words and ideas that used to be taboo, like socialism. Sanders uses the word socialism, and despite serious limitations he associates that with a struggle against a political, social, and economic system that is dominated by profiteering billionaires, and he also associates it with a better future in which all people can live a decent life – good health care, education, transportation, housing, jobs, income, communities, environment and more for all people, no exceptions, with liberty and justice for all, a society of the free and the equal. This vision is what more and more people are associating with the word socialism used by Sanders and other socialists using the Democratic Party ballot-line.

 

This is a truly new situation, and it’s a good thing. It does not mean that revolutionary socialists should make their home in the Democratic Party or register as Democrats. It doesn’t mean that revolutionary socialists should support Democrats in general or hold back from sharply criticizing the Democratic Party for what it is. It doesn’t mean that revolutionary socialists should do whatever Sanders and others like him urge them to do, or accept (and urge others to accept) whatever they happen to say. 

 

What it does mean, in my opinion, is that revolutionary socialists should give critical support to Sanders and other socialists running on the Democratic Party ballot-line. The word “critical” is as important as the word “support.” We should join with others in supporting all that is positive in what Sanders and others are identifying as their socialist vision, and in fighting against the policies and system of the billionaires. At the same time, we should be highlighting and pushing against limitations, mistakes, and all that undermines the essentially revolutionary values and ideals so many people are responding to. We must speak our minds, say all that it is necessary for revolutionaries to say, doing this in ways that more and more people can comprehend, and to which they can respond positively. We must help build processes and structures that sustain democracy and accountability in this context – to hold socialist candidates and elected socialists accountable, to pressure them (or help them) to stay true to the best that is in them, and to push them aside if they betray us. 

 

The best way to do this, and a burning need in its own right, is to build independent social struggles through trade unions, through community organizations, through movements against racism, for women’s liberation, for LGBTQ rights, against war, for health care and housing and public transit, for preservation of a livable environment, and more. Peoples struggles, mass struggles, committed to victory, independent of all politicians (even those identifying as socialists) - not after the elections but now and through the elections as well as after - are needed in and of themselves, but are also a key to the victory and effectiveness of socialist candidates and elected socialists. And it is also a key to answering the essential question of accountability during the campaigns and after the victories.

 

As I have repeated a number of times in the present discussion, the situation in which we find ourselves is neither permanent nor stable – it is quite fluid. Before long it will come to an end, thanks to the ongoing crises of capitalism, the ongoing mass radicalization, and the determination of the pro-capitalist leadership of the Democratic Party to put an end to the socialist threat in their ranks. 

 

In such a situation, it seems likely to me that many supporters of Sanders and others like him will end up breaking from the Democratic Party (perhaps joined by Sanders and all the various elected socialists, perhaps not). Out of this development, it is possible – we must work hard for it – that a mass socialist movement will crystallize, and if we do our work right there will be a substantial revolutionary current that is an organic part of that movement. 

 

That is my understanding of a path forward for revolutionary socialists in the current situation. I am waiting to consider alternative paths forward that might be better, but critics of my initial ten points tend not to be offering that. While I very much appreciate Rob’s substantial effort (the most substantial fo far) to develop a systematic critique, I think we need to bring more of the discussion onto the “what is to be done” terrain if we are to advance our struggle to build a mass socialist movement.

 

I will respond to the final points in Rob’s Part Two in a separate post, a little later today.

 

Centrality of independent mass struggles

 

To say that Rob Lyons’s critique is by far the most substantial contribution to be put forward in this discussion is not meant to denigrate the others, some of which raise very good points, thoughtful questions, important criticisms. Much of what I have been reading in all of this, however, brings to mind a passage in Victor Serge’s Notebooks, which I have been working through over the past few weeks. Wrestling with dramatically changed world realities in 1944 that were difficult to understand by those shaped in the period of 1900-1939, he found that many close comrades were unable even to understand what he was talking about. His clipped, telegraphic comments express his frustration:

 

“The extraordinary power of tradition, attaining a kind of blindness; also take into account the painful difficulty of mastering a new situation, full of pitfalls and disappointments; the spirit of objective investigation retreats and gives up rather than advancing toward discoveries it is not certain of being able to master and which, it foresees, may put into question the former foundation of its faith.” (p. 462)

 

In my opinion Serge himself – striving to advance on this new terrain – does not always come up with the right answers, and I am inclined toward a more thoroughgoing embrace of “the tradition” than he seemed comfortable with in 1944. So the critical responses in this discussion are much appreciated and are, in my opinion, a crucial part of a collective process among revolutionary socialists to understand what is, in order to figure out what to do. 

 

That brings me to the biggest deficiency in much of the discussion, however. In response to my own comments, there is no serious discussion of what revolutionary socialists should actually do – aside from vague references to “staying the course” (all too often from those who are not politically active). Substantial as it is, Rob’s contribution is hardly better than the others on this score. My hope is that comrades engaged in this discussion will overcome this deficiency and address, less vaguely, more robustly, with some detail, the question of “what is to be done” as they express differences with my own efforts.

 

This may relate to Rob’s beginning in the final two points in his critique: “I find Paul's point number 9 incomprehensible, despite rereading it multiple times. He appears to me to be saying that the level of class struggle will be held in abeyance until the results of the US primaries and national election are known, if Sanders wins.” This strikes me, also, as quite incoherent and bizarre. Let’s review what is said in my point #9, and then – to unravel the mystery – remind ourselves what was said in point #4. 

 

Point #9 says: “In the unlikely event that Sanders wins the Presidency, revolutionary socialists should be prepared for intensified struggles (in some cases perhaps life and death struggles) and for the quite possible defeat that will, if engaged in effectively, increase the radicalization among the 99 percent – and provide a basis for deepening consciousness and future struggle.” There is nothing here about holding the class struggle, or “the level of the class struggle,” in abeyance “until the results of the US primaries and national election are known.” To say that the unlikely event of a Sanders victory will mean an intensification of the class struggle indicates there has been something ongoing that is then intensified. This is surely consistent with point #4: “When openly socialist candidates who have gotten onto the Democratic Party ballot-line are running in general elections, it makes sense for revolutionary socialists to vote for them and encourage others to do likewise – not as Democrats, but as socialists. At the same time, it makes sense to build independent, non-electoral social movements fighting against all forms of oppression and exploitation, calling on the candidates (especially if they win) to support their just demands and to be accountable to them.” 

 

My belief, as stated earlier in my response to Rob, is that we must “build independent social struggles through trade unions, through community organizations, through movements against racism, for women’s liberation, for LGBTQ rights, against war, for health care and housing and public transit, for preservation of a livable environment, and more. Peoples struggles, mass struggles, committed to victory, independent of all politicians (even those identifying as socialists) - not after the elections but now and through the elections as well as after - are needed in and of themselves, but are also a key to the victory and effectiveness of socialist candidates and elected socialists. And it is also a key to answering the essential question of accountability during the campaigns and after the victories.”

 

My hope is that this makes my actual position more comprehensible for Rob and perhaps others. 

 

I will wrap up with his final point in the concluding section of this response, which immediately follows this one.

 

What is to be done?

 

Rob’s concluding comments focus on my point #10, which he rephrases in this way: “the present political conjuncture provides the revolutionary left an opportunity to enter into a mass reformist political organization, and because of the political dynamics within the Democratic Party, an ideological crisis will help crystallize the emergence of a mass revolutionary vanguard pole of attraction which will, in a relatively short period of time, break with the main party of North American imperialism.”

 

This is not entirely wrong, but it is not entirely right either. My ten points do not involve a discussion of entering into “a mass reformist political organization,” by which – as Rob makes clear – he is referring to Democratic Socialists of America. That is a separate discussion, and I will come back to it briefly in a few moments. The discussion of my ten points is how revolutionary socialists (whether they are in DSA or another organization or unaffiliated) should relate to socialists running on the Democratic Party ballot-line, and to the Bernie Sanders campaign. The rest of what Rob says roughly approximates what I am actually discussing: “because of the political dynamics within the Democratic Party, an ideological crisis will help crystallize the emergence of a mass revolutionary vanguard pole of attraction which will, in a relatively short period of time, break with the main party of North American imperialism.” 

 

There is nothing new that Rob has to say on all of this, preferring to repeat his notion that what I call for constitutes a “strategic orientation of electing imperialist politicians.” Since I have dealt with that at length earlier in these comments, I have nothing to add in response, aside from the assertion that this is false. 

 

The interesting aspect of the final remarks is the glimmer of a “what is to be done” perspective. Here is how Rob puts it: “Wouldn't it be more important to create a class struggle pole of teachers in the two main educators associations in the US, than putting all the eggs into a Jeff Sharkey basket, a mover and shaker in the Chicago DSA? Isn't it more important to intervene into the Teamsters for a Democratic Union fight against the Hoffa version of the labor lieutenants of capital? Isn't it more important to build a Hands Off Venezuela movement, to show the left ward moving mass that the enemy of the peoples of Latin America are the same people they want to elect to Congress?”

 

There are three things that I will say in response. First, I cannot do all of those things, because I am an individual whose organization collapsed. (This relates to my consideration of DSA as an arena within which to function – and related to that, too, is that I am not attracted to membership in tiny groups that defend dogmatized versions of theoretical orthodoxies while holding back from actual mass struggle). Second, I am not aware of any teacher who wants to put “all the eggs into a Jeff Sharkey basket” (whatever that is supposed to mean – I assume this is merely a bit of irrelevant sectarian sniping), but I do know teachers who have been seeing “to create a class struggle pole of teachers in the two main educators associations in the US,” and I am definitely in favor of that. Third, as I hope I have already made clear, I believe that revolutionary socialists should be involved in mass movements and mass struggles (I do this in Pittsburgh to the best of my ability). That is central to any hope I have for the future.

 

In my opinion, it makes sense to interweave such engagement with mass struggle and mass movements with ongoing socialist education. At this specific conjuncture, I think it also makes sense to combined these things with taking seriously and offering critical support to the phenomenon of socialists utilizing the Democratic Party ballot-line (including the Sanders campaign). Such a combined approach, it seems to me, has the potential for contributing to the crystallization, in the near-term, of a mass socialist movement independent of both capitalist parties and capable of challenging the tyranny and violence of the capitalist system – winning many thousands and millions to an uncompromising struggle for a socialist future.

 

Rejoinder to Paul Le Blanc's response 

By Rob Lyons 

 

Thank you Paul for your well argued responses. It has certainly clarified what our different approaches are, and certainly highlighted a vastly different appreciation of the situation. Let me briefly reply to a few of your points.

 

1. Sanders as a socialist or an imperialist. You argue that Sanders is a socialist unlike anything else which has come down the pike at the level of bourgeois democratic politics. I on the other hand, look at his actual record of support for almost every imperial adventure undertaken by both Republican and Democrat administrations. His support for the obscene military budgets, and the appropriations for the concentration camp policies of Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump speak much more loudly than his populist re-phrasing of the Occupy movement.

 

That he uses the word socialist does have its positive aspects, in the context of the imperialist heartland, but his functional program of sheep dogging for the Democrats far outweighs, in my mind, those positive aspects.

 

The program that he annunciates, of good and worthwhile reforms, like Medicare for All, or the abolition of student debt, are worthwhile supporting. The question is how. By sowing allusions in the ability of an imperialist party like the Democrats to deliver, or by organizing a national, mass action oriented coalition which has a strategic vision of winning this demand(Medicare fior All) in the streets, in the union halls, and on the picket lines, work which will be reflected within the DSA and amongst those self-proclaimed socialists in the DP Congressional caucuses, but more importantly pose the question of electoralism or self-organization of the working class.

 

That question was posed very clearly in the Red State rebellions, where it was self-organization and mass action which won the day, with nary a self-serving Democrat to be seen (yeah, I know, that is a bit of an exaggeration).

 

So, for me, no critical support to any candidate for the parties of imperialism, ever. Adding the word critical in front of support doesn't change the nature of the beast one iota, because it has no meaning in real life. It boils down to something like this: 'Yeah, Bernie Sanders could be better on foreign policy, but he is better than the rest on a bunch of other policies." That is what crityical support looks like. On the other hand, it sure looks a lot like lesser evilism, doesn't it. But as my friend Utah Phillips used to say: "Remember, when you are voting for the lesser of the evils, you are still voting for evil." 

 

I am not being snide when I say that Sanders support for imperialism, as exhibited by his actual record, is evil. I cannot for the life of my fathom how you can ignore this, especially because of the special responsibility revolutionary socialists in North America have to put the anti-imperialist question at the heart of their politics.

 

2. The first point leads directly into the second. You advocate critical support for openly socialist candidates running on the Democratic Party line. The first question is, who meets your criteria of who is a socialist? Is it anyone who self-identifies as one? The second question revolves around the phrase "running on the Democratic Party ballot line". 

 

Now, Trotsky, Cannon, Dunne and Shachtman had a fascinating conversation about this very question, around the use of the Labor Non-Partisan League, and the Farmer-Labor Party ballot lines, about 7 decades ago, so this is hardly a new question (I will append the relevant piece at the end of this reply.) The conclusion they reached then was that using the ballot line was in effect plumping for the Democratic Party. And this at a time when the political acumen of the labor movement, and the class consciousness of the US working class was at a much higher level than it is now. 

 

So, while the above discussion was tactical in nature, it ultimately revolved around the relationship of the principle of no support for a candidate of a bourgeois party, ever. 

 

These questions lead to what is the glaring contradiction in your 10 points, which is this: one the one hand you agree with the principle of class independence and no political support for the parties of the capitalist class; on the other you immediately contradict yourself by saying its ok to muddy these waters by trying to differentiate between those who say they are socialists, and those who don't. I think that Trotsky, Cannon, Dunne and Shachtman would be disinclined to agree with you on that. Because they are both running as Democrats, and you end up giving critical support to the capitalist political party, despite the best intentions in the world. 

 

3. Paul, you seem to think that the dynamics of the Democratic Party will lead to a split, with Sanders possibly leading the charge. Well, history will soon tell, but I wouldn't be putting any bets on this. Sanders has too much to lose by breaking his ties with the Democrats, as he exhibited in his loyalty oath parade last time stumping for Hillary Clinton. I could be wrong about this, but I think you will owe me a beer next year in Havana if things don't unfold the way I think you are prognosticating.

 

I just want to draw your attention to a woman named Fannie Lou Hamer, one of my political influences. In case you don't remember , she was the Vice-chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the very articulate public spokesperson for that organization. If you remember, at the 1964 Democratic convention, the MFDP demanded that they be seated as representatives of the base of the DP in Mississippi. They, of course, were opposed by the Dixiecrats and its lead dog, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who eventually was able to cook up a deal where two of the African -American delegates were given credentials, thereby helping to avert a bigger crisis than the one the DP was facing, what with Vietnam, Cuba and the civil rights political movements taking over the streets of America.

 

I raise this because there is almost a naive underestimation in the US left of the ability of the imperialist ruling class to co-opt and channel these movements of dissent, and to play upon a strategy of negotiation versus confrontation to solve these political crises. Time after time after time, the graveyard wins. The same fate awaits the Sanderistas.

 

Here is Trotsky and all in a pertinent conversation: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/04/lp.htm

Moralism and Marxist method in shaping strategy and tactics 

By Paul Le Blanc  

 

I can offer a partial response right now, saving the important discussion with Trotsky for a bit later.

 

I think I have no major disagreement with you on the flaws of Sanders regarding foreign policy. He has also played the role you mention in regard to urging people to vote for Democrats like Hillary Clinton, among many others. We are also in agreement over the fact that his use of “the word socialist does have its positive aspects,” and we are in agreement when you write “the program that he annunciates, of good and worthwhile reforms, like Medicare for All, or the abolition of student debt, are worthwhile supporting. The question is how.”

 

This question of “how” brings me to what I think is a misunderstanding you have of my position. The only way to achieve these things is to building massive and political independent struggles and movements that are not in any politician’s hip pocket. That’s the only way it’s done. That has to be central to all that we are doing. You label it “self-organization of the working class,” and that’s a good label, I think. It is not something to be deferred until after the elections or sidelined by any “leave it to Bernie” attitude. The reason for revolutionary socialists giving critical support to socialist candidates like Sanders is not based on any expectation that this is how we are going to get Medicare for all or abolition of student debt. I completely agree with your comment that in “the Red State rebellions … [it] was self-organization and mass action which won the day.” 

 

I also very much agree with you that revolutionary socialists (and others), especially in North America but not only there, must put “the anti-imperialist question at the heart of their politics.” That is one of the key reasons why support for the socialist candidates we are talking about must be CRITICAL support. It is another reason why we must build independent social movements and struggles before, during, and after elections – in this case helping to generate consciousness, social struggles and movements (as best we can) against war and imperialism, to put pressure on all politicians and policy-makers.

 

Timeless questions of good and evil

 

I also agree with another point you make, although this slides into a point of disagreement. You recount the Utah Phillips comment: "Remember, when you are voting for the lesser of the evils, you are still voting for evil." I agree with that, and since my first vote in 1968, I have rejected the “lesser-evilism” strategy (or capitulation). I am not in favor of critical support for people like Sanders because “he’s not as bad as the other guy.” And in fact, my long-standing refusal to buy the “vote-for-the-lesser-evil” position has not been simply on moralistic grounds. That is not adequate for a serious political person, for a Marxist – as I am sure you will agree.

 

Democrats may be the "lesser evil," but there are Democrats who are not evil (and I don’t regard Sanders as evil) – flawed, mistaken, non-revolutionary as they are on so many things. But even "good Democrats" will not be capable of addressing the problems and crises of capitalism, and when they fail to come through on happy-face promises, as they inevitably will, people will become increasingly desperate and disillusioned. If we have failed to build an independent alternative to the Left, then desperate people, disillusioned with the liberals, will have no place to go except to the well-organized Right. And to a large extent, that has characterized US politics since the 1960s – punctuated by a spike of illusory hope and inevitable disillusionment with Obama. 

 

Maybe this is the place to consider your comment about Fannie Lou Hamer. She is someone I also vividly remember, and she was one of my heroes as well – every semester I teach about her and the struggle she was part of. I vividly remember, too, the betrayal of the hopes of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964. Despite the betrayal, as time passed, many in the MFDP went on to become a force in the Democratic Party of Mississippi, and some of them became elected officials. That represented an important change – and it was not enough, because the Democratic Party is part of the problem, not part of the solution. That is the lesson that you and I should be pointing to regarding that long-ago but vibrant experience.

 

Material realities in the here-and-now

 

We now see a phenomenon of open socialists running on the Democratic Party ballot-line, denouncing a system controlled by the billionaires, aggressively putting forward a broad program of social reforms. (This litany has to do with the "criteria" you asked for.) The primary reason for supporting them is not because this will make the Democratic Party worth supporting. It won’t. But these forces are openly critical of a hostile, pro-capitalist leadership of the Democratic Party, and are also generating considerable popular enthusiasm, and growing interest in socialism. This situation has a potential for leading to a break from the Democratic Party and to a crystallization of a mass socialist movement in the United States. And with that we can begin to forge an effective alternative on the Left end of US politics that has been so needed for so long. And then it will be possible – in a new way that has not existed before – to struggle effectively for a victory of the working-class majority and a future society worthy of human beings. This is the basis for the tactic I have been talking about.

 

You seem to have a clearer notion of what I am saying about this now, but there is a mistake in the way you formulate my position: “Paul, you seem to think that the dynamics of the Democratic Party will lead to a split, with Sanders possibly leading the charge.” You then go on to emphasize some of Sanders’s flaws that make you skeptical that he will lead the charge. Frankly, I would be shocked if Sanders led the charge. But we are talking about a situation and process much bigger than Sanders. What he has contributed to creating is something hardly under his control. There are no guarantees that the development I would like to see will actually come to pass, but the possibility is there, and as you say, “history will soon tell.”

 

Is there anything we can actually do as history unfolds? I think so. I have put forward an orientation that makes sense to me. Comrades who think I’ve got it wrong should put forward what they feel is a better practical pathway.



Implications of Trotsky’s method and tactical approach

 

Here is the promised response regarding the Trotsky discussion that you have raised. I hope what I am offering will be interesting and helpful as we continue to sort through the matters under discussion.

 

I have gone through the 1938 transcript of the labor party discussion of April-June,1938 between Trotsky and leaders of the Socialist Workers Party. I want to repeat your summary of what is in that discussion, then make a couple of comments about that discussion, and then refer to a different discussion that Trotsky had in the same period with C.L.R. James, at that time also a leading member of the SWP.

 

Here is how you summarize the labor party discussion: “Now, Trotsky, Cannon, Dunne and Shactman had a fascinating conversation about this very question, around the use of the Labor Non-Partisan League, and the Farmer-Labor Party ballot lines, about 7 decades ago, so this is hardly a new question (I will append the relevant piece at the end of this reply.) The conclusion they reached then was that using the ballot line was in effect plumping for the Democratic Party. And this at a time when the political acumen of the labor movement, and the class consciousness of the US working class was at a much higher level than it is now.” You put forward this conclusion: “So, while the above discussion was tactical in nature, it ultimately revolved around the relationship of the principle of no support for a candidate of a bourgeois party, ever.” 

 

First of all, it seems to me that you flatten and oversimplify what this discussion actually contains. It involves consideration of several questions. One is whether revolutionary socialists in the United States should favor and help facilitate the formation of a labor party (what Shachtman feared would be “a reformist labor party”) in the United States. US Trotskyists had generally been in the forefront of arguing “No!” In the discussion, Trotsky favored a reorientation, and he put forward a line of argument indicating the need for a shift. It is valuable for us in this discussion to consider how Trotsky approaches the matter, especially because it advances quite clearly a methodology that can be helpful for us today (and tomorrow):

 

"Trotsky: This question is very important and very complicated. When for the first time the League [Communist League of America] considered this question, some seven or eight years ago – whether we should favor a labor party or not, whether we should develop initiative on this score – then the prevailing sentiment was not to do it, and that was absolutely correct. The perspective for development was not clear. I believed that the majority of us hoped that the development of our own organization will [would] be more speedy. On the other hand I believe no one in our ranks foresaw during that period the appearance of the CIO with this rapidity and this power. In our perspective we overestimated the possibility of the development of our party at the expense of the Stalinists on one hand, and on the other hand we don’t [didn’t] see this powerful trade union movement, and the rapid decline of American capitalism. These are two facts which we must reckon with."

 

In the discussion there is also discussion of the Farmer Labor Party (FLP) the Labor Non-Partisan League (LNPL). The first was a formation in Minnesota described by V.R. Dunne in this way: “The FLP is based upon workers’ economic organizations – trade unions, cooperatives, etc., farmers’ cooperative organizations; also upon territorial units – township clubs, etc. It also allows for the affiliation of cultural organizations, sick-and-death-benefit organizations, etc., also through ward clubs. The Stalinists and intellectuals join through these clubs; they have more control than the drivers’ local of 4,000 members. We are fighting against that – we are demanding that the trade unions be given their real representation – we have the support of the trade unions on this.” It seems to me there was sentiment in the discussion to be part of the FLP but to prevent Stalinist domination and to ensure strong working-class and trade union representation.

 

The LNPL was a precursor of the Congress of Industrialization (CIO) Political Action Committee and the later AFL-CIO COPE (Committee on Political Education). The gist of the discussion is that revolutionary socialists in the unions should throw themselves into the LNPL and in that context argue for the formation of a labor party, at the same time resisting efforts by the Stalinists and labor-reformists to turn it into what PAC and COPE became – electoral bandwagons of the Democratic Party.


I find myself in agreement what seem to me to be the main thrust and conclusions in this rich discussion of Trotsky and his comrades. Yet I want to take up your comment that this discussion highlights “the principle of no support for a candidate of a bourgeois party, ever.” It is clear that these comrades were not in favor of backdoor endorsements (using FLP or other “labor party” ballot-lines) in order to get people to vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt and other “New Deal” Democrats, which is what Stalinists and various labor-reformists were pushing for. Of course this is something different (as you mistakenly deny) from what we are dealing with in this discussion. But there is, you are insisting, a principle that emerges from their discussion, and that is what I want to focus on.

 

I have a problem with your rigid, almost moralistic word “ever.” I don’t find it in this discussion. “Ever” is a long time. And a problem with your use of it is that in exactly the same period as the labor party discussion, we find Trotsky in an April 5, 1938 discussion with C.L.R. James (identified by his party name “J.R. Johnson”) violating this seemingly timeless principle. James is discussing the formation of an independent organization among African Americans, and the question of electoral action comes up. Here is the relevant section of the transcript:

 

“Johnson: This organization has a program. When the Democrats put up a Negro candidate, we say, ‘Not at all. It must be a candidate with a program we can support.’

 

“Trotsky: It is a question of another organization for which we are not responsible, just as they are not responsible for us. If this organization puts up a certain candidate, and we find as a party that we must put up our own candidate in opposition, we have the full right to do so. If we are weak and cannot get the organization to choose a revolutionist, and they choose a Negro Democrat, we might even withdraw our candidate with a concrete declaration that we abstain from fighting, not the Democrat, but the Negro. We consider that the Negro’s candidacy as opposed to the white’s candidacy, even if both are of the same party, is an important factor in the struggle of the Negroes for their equality; and in this case we can critically support them. I believe that it can be done in certain instances.”

 

To be honest, I have been aware of this Trotsky quote for some time. That, combined with Trotsky’s methodology indicated in the earlier quote, has influenced me in putting forward the tactical consideration that has generated so much controversy and rich discussion on this FaceBook page.    

 

For those interested in the discussion between Trotsky and James, it can be found here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1940/negro1.htm#sd

Independent summary and commentary on the 10 points 

By Matthew E Strauss 

 

I will not wade through the above points yet, because they are mostly critiques, though there are some engagements. I will simply reiterate what I read in the following, and then comment under this comment.

 

1 Revolutionary socialists should remain independent of the Democratic Party

 

2 open socialists making use of the Democratic Party ballot-line in order to help build an explicitly socialist movement

 

3 build socialist consciousness and stir critical thinking among more and more people – into the thousands and millions--through the critique of openly socialist candidates running on the ballot line

 

4 Vote as socialists--and build independent, non-electoral social movements fighting against oppression, calling on the candidates to support their just demands

 

5 Sanders campaigns helped dramatically in generating socialist thought in the political mainstream

 

6 Sanders represents an alternative that has been missing for decades: he openly criticizes capitalism and advances socialism as an alternative. Critical support is called for.

 

7 Win or lose, Sanders campaigns will leave behind the results of electorally supported militant struggle--those independent movements mentioned in #4

 

8 Primary win--Sanders shouldn't be seen as leadership regardless--critique and build independent movements.

 

9 General win--struggle and radicalization increase.

 

10 1-9 a short-term tactic. All a tool for building a layer of the conscious working class. This is the point.

 

10 Let's start from the end, which is really the beginning: THE point is to build a conscious-for-itself layer of the working class along socialist lines, willing to engage in militant struggle. That is the end goal. Not a won election; not even increasing the number of socialists running. That. As #1 indicates, it should be done INDEPENDENTLY from the Democratic Party. Period.

 

*A*, not *THE* tactic for doing this, is outlined in 2-9: 

 

2 open socialists visible to the public are running

 

3 means the people are the point, not the candidates: building mass. 

 

4 means to be visible voting as socialists, building independent campaigns of struggle and linking these to the visible struggle in the electoral arena. 

 

5 Penetrate the mainstream discussion

 

6 The candidate (Sanders) advocates ideas which are easy segues into talking to people openly about what socialism is.

 

7-9 Speculates on the outcomes of using the tactics outline in 1-6

 

At bottom, an independently organized set of movements with heightened visibility during the election season could win more people who are not engaged politically to socialism. This, in contrast to what is currently on offer on the left.

 

The entire tactic is short term because of the election season; it has an expiration date. What emerges afterwards; the masses of radicalized people, the movements themselves, which ARE called for to be independent, and thus, not likely to fizzle after Sanders wins/loses, is the entire point. The goal.

 

Given this, I can't really take seriously the idea that the points are a move to the right. Joining the Democratic Party is not suggested; even joining the DSA itself isn't necessarily an implication. Any socialist group organized in the country could implement the above and still consider itself independent in terms of its organizing militant struggle. The only difference would be that they reach for heightened visibility given candidates who will be compelled to recognize those struggles. Yes, that is contingent on the candidate, but the organized independent struggle remains separate from that.

 

My first impression was that this tactic would leave revolutionary socialists demoralized after a Sanders loss, with no where to go; but if Paul's points are followed along the independent organizing line, they needn't be. If someone were to put all their eggs in the ballot-line basket, then sure, nothing would follow but disillusionment.

 

The back-breaking work the left REALLY NEEDS to get to work on, is the independent building. Most of the revolutionary socialist left that emerged from the ISO crisis that isn't dissolving into DSA plans to do that work already; it would be easy to tie in discussion of Sanders' campaign as an add on along these outlined tactics; many of them our old ISO branch WAS doing in conversation with people during 2016; the only difference being that the left probably needs to unite solidly enough so that a consensus IS transmitted to the candidates who may be paying attention to the DSA. I can't say what that would look like other than to speculate that the United Front would be a useful format.

 

My goal in this defense is to try to reiterate to all reading this, that there is not ONE of you who disagree with Paul's ultimate goal here: the building of independent organizations that are visible, have growing public support, and will last past the election season. 

 

The rest of the tactical considerations will be over and done with past that point, and you will STILL be doing these things, regardless of win, lose, or draw. You would still be doing those things, even if you shunned all the electoral angle!

 

Paul is a decades-long-lived revolutionary socialist, with credentials out to here; he knows what's at stake, especially in light of his comments at S19 in the Luxemburg panel and elsewhere...I can't see this short-term tactical proposal as any kind of break from that; not when the entire point of it is to try to end up with something closer to an actual independent party or working class organs that emerge afterwards.

Appendix: Presentation for Rosa Luxemburg panel at Socialism 2019

By Paul Le Blanc

 

After a few general remarks, I will correct the historical record about something Rosa Luxemburg did not say, and from there will consider advice on political strategy that she seems to offer socialist activists of today, to be found in volumes two and five of her collected works which I have helped edit.

 

I want to begin with an appeal that we engage with Luxemburg in the manner she deserves. This has several aspects. One involves opening our minds and hearts to her – and for many of us this is incredibly easy, given her vibrant sensibilities, her energy, her personal and intellectual animation and depth, and the very way she talks to us in her writings.

 

Another involves trying to understand what she actually said and meant and did (as opposed to settling for a Rosa simply of our own making). I have heard people describe Rosa Luxemburg essentially as a utopian radical-feminist or as a rigidly “Marxist” anti-feminist. I have heard people talk about her – and quite positively – as if her thinking was compatible with Emma Goldman’s anarchism or Eduard Bernstein’s social-democratic reformism or Deng Xioping’s bureaucratic state-capitalism. She is also very frequently cast in the role of Lenin’s Most Magnificent Enemy in some cosmic morality play.

 

One can get negative too. Simply because Luxemburg is a Marxist, believing in the class struggle and opposing capitalism, she is for some on the Right a precursor of Joseph Stalin and a herald of horrific tyranny. Among some on the Left, she is criticized as a woolly-minded “spontaneist” who does not understand the need for organization in the revolutionary struggle.

 

Luxemburg was qualitatively different from, and more interesting than, any of this, and she deserves better from us.

 

Related to this, she deserves from us an effort to make use of what she is actually offering us. She was brilliant, insightful, with considerable knowledge and practical experience. She said and wrote things that are worth comprehending, actively considering, and testing out as we try to understand and change the world around us.

 

Through our engagement with her, we must treat her as a person, not as a Revolutionary Goddess. Just because she thinks or says or writes something does not necessarily make that “something” true. It is possible that she could be wrong. Given her humanity, it is inevitable that she would get some things wrong. It has been argued intelligently that she got certain things terribly, even disastrously wrong – and such arguments deserve serious consideration. I should add that, from my own experience, even when I conclude she was wrong about something, it is not the case that she is wrong about every aspect of that “something” – her mind and insights are so good that one can learn from her even when she is partly or largely wrong.

 

She deserves being taken seriously. We owe that to her and to ourselves as well.

 

Now I want to quote from one of Luxemburg’s comrades with whom she sometimes crossed swords – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Here is something Lenin wrote about her, which has been quoted over and over and over again: “not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works . . . will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of Communists all over the world. ‘Since August 4, 1914, Social-Democracy has been a stinking corpse’ —this statement will make Rosa Luxemburg’s name famous in the history of the international working class movement.”

 

The 1914 reference is to the eruption of World War I, and to the betrayal by the leaders of Luxemburg’s party – the Social Democratic Party of Germany (the SPD) – in supporting this imperialist war. Indeed, there are revolutionary-minded people today who wag a finger at those who join Democratic Socialists of America while repeating this Luxemburg quote: “Social-Democracy is a stinking corpse.”

 

A problem with this is it seems to be Lenin’s formulation. As we editors have poured through all that Luxemburg wrote, we have not been able to find those words. She was always very critical of the increasingly non-revolutionary orientation in the SPD leadership, and starting in 1914 doubly and triply so. And at the end of her life she helped to form the German Communist Party. But for most of her life – with varying degrees of patience and impatience – she labored to win working-class comrades of the Social Democracy to a revolutionary Marxist orientation. She warned them of what she called twin evils. One was cutting themselves off from the mass of workers and their struggles, maintaining their purity as a little revolutionary-minded sect. The other was adapting to opportunities offered by shrewd capitalist politicians, with the result of turning the socialist organization into “a party of bourgeois social reform.”

 

In her battle against reformism she by no means opposed the struggle for reforms – changes for the better within the framework of capitalism. The problem with reformism, she insisted, is that it seeks simply by pile up one reform after another with the intention of gradually, painlessly transitioning to a more just and humane society. Luxemburg saw winning reforms as essential to building a strong and self-confident working-class movement capable of overturning capitalism and replacing it with socialism. As she put it, “the struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”

 

Luxemburg’s analysis of the economic dynamics of the capital accumulation process, to be found in volume 2 of her collected works, indicates that reformist gradualism is impossible. She described capitalism’s global expansion as “capital’s relentless war on the social and economic interrelations” of the world’s peoples, and “the violent looting of their means of production and their labor power.” She emphasized the destructive impact of all this – “the ravenous greed, the voracious appetite for accumulation, the very essence of which is to take advantage” of human realities “with no thought for tomorrow.” Imperialism, militarism, and war are essential to the capitalist system that Luxemburg describes and analyzes. We must now add to this environmental degradation. This leads, as she puts it, to “the destruction of all culture or a transition to the socialist mode of production.”

 

The fifth volume of her works highlights the pathway that Luxemburg argued could lead to this final, transitional victory of Social Democracy. It was transitional not simply in the sense of leading from the capitalist to the socialist form of economy, but in the way working-class consciousness and workers’ struggles should develop, with struggles for reforms that can actually flow into the social revolution. Mass struggles to protect people’s dignity and quality of life generate what she called “a lovely madness” among the workers, the vision that “a huge effort full of sacrifices” can result in “a socialist ordering of society,” Luxemburg called upon the party and trade unions of Germany to help prepare the intellectual spirit and idealism among masses of workers that “all struggles that we conduct, all mass strikes that lie in front of us, are nothing other than a necessary historical stage towards the ultimate liberation from capitalism, on the way to a socialist order.” She told us: “We can only grow through struggle, and it’s in the middle of struggle where we learn how to fight.” My time is up. But these are words worth taking to heart as we labor to rebuild our socialist movement and, with a lovely madness, reach for a future of the free and the equal – learning how to fight, through engaging in the actual struggles of today and tomorrow.

 

[During the discussion following the panel presentations, I made three kinds of points.  One rejected counterposing a so-called “Luxemburgism” (not a useful category in my opinion) to the so-called Leninism of Lenin – they were both comrades in the revolutionary current of the international socialist movement; on some matters of disagreement she was more astute than Lenin, but on some I think he was more correct.  While both had been close to Karl Kautsky before his shift away from revolutionary Marxism, their shared rejection of what became “Kautskyism” indicated that they were much closer to each other. Another kind of point involved the inclination to ask “what would Rosa Luxemburg do today” – not particularly helpful, in my opinion, since she has dead for a hundred years, and we find ourselves in a qualitatively different reality than the one she faced.  This relates to the third kind of point: a fundamental difference between Luxemburg’s time and our own is that all she wrote and said and did was within the context of the international existence of a powerful socialist working-class movement, which had a possibility of actually taking political power and bringing about a transition to socialism. That does not exist now, but I think our primary responsibility is to do all that we can to bring such a thing into existence. Luxemburg and other revolutionaries from her time provide a methodology, insightful analyses, and an inspiring example that can be helpful to us as we try to understand and respond to our own realities, but it is up to us to figure out what we should do.] 

 

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