United States: Another socialist left is possible -- a reply to Paul D’Amato

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[Click HERE to follow the entire debate on Tony Cliff's Lenin. For more discussion on revolutionary organisation, click HERE. Articles on left unity can be found HERE.]

By Pham Binh

February 10, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The first response to my “Occupy and the tasks of socialists” piece to be written by a leading member of an US socialist organisation is emblematic of what is wrong with the US socialist left.

I am referring to “The mangling of Tony Cliff”, written by Paul D’Amato, International Socialist Organization (ISO) member and managing editor of the International Socialist Review. He responds to my Tasks piece in his reply to a book review I did, writing:

Binh appears to be taking Trotsky’s pre-1917 “conciliationist” line (which Trotsky later repudiated) that the differences were not substantial enough (since both saw Russia’s revolution as “bourgeois”) for a split. After the Prague congress Trotsky attempted to organise the “August Bloc”, an effort to unite all the different factions of the movement. It began to collapse immediately after its first gathering. “The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy”, Trotsky later wrote of his policy of unity at any cost, “was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purposes of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party”. Binh apparently rejects these conclusions. Perhaps his model is the August Bloc. This isn’t a guess. He says in his article “Occupy and the tasks of socialists”:

Out of clouds of pepper spray and phalanxes of riot cops a new generation of revolutionaries is being forged, and it would be a shame if the Peter Camejos, Max Elbaums, Angela Davises, Dave Clines and Huey Newtons of this generation end up in separate “competing” socialist groups as they did in the 1960s. Now is the time to begin seriously discussing the prospect of regroupment, of liquidating outdated boundaries we have inherited, of finding ways to work closely together for our common ends.

Above all else, now is the time to take practical steps towards creating a broad-based radical party that in today’s context could easily have thousands of active members and even more supporters.

First of all, is absurd to compare the sectarian rivalries of the 1960s, in which Maoist and Stalinist sects without practically identical politics railed at each other about who is the “true vanguard”, to the factional disputes in the Russian movement between its revolutionary and reformist wing—organisations that had become mass parties in 1905 with deep roots in the working class. Secondly, a “united” socialist organisation that has in its ranks both those who consider North Korea, China and Vietnam socialist, and those who think that they are bureaucratic despotism; both Stalinists and genuine Marxists; and both supporters and opponents of the Democratic Party would be a still-born project.

Lesson: if you want to ignite a debate among US socialists about what is to be done here and now in the middle of the Occupy uprising, don’t write about Occupy, write a critical review of a Lenin biography written in 1975 by someone who died over a decade ago. Then the sparks will fly.

This is exactly what’s wrong with us, the US socialist left.

The fact that there has been almost no concrete and explicit discussion on the US socialist left about the new tasks Occupy’s eruption has created for us is disturbing. What little discussion happens around these issues occurs either in international forums like Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal or on the personal blogs of unaffiliated socialists like Unrepentant Marxist instead of through the US socialist left’s existing infrastructure — web sites, newspapers and magazines. This is another strong indicator that something is deeply wrong with us and how we operate.

To reply to D’Amato’s points: we are not in situation remotely comparable to early 20th century Russia, no one is trying to unite forces with diametrically opposed practical orientations under one roof, nor am I remotely comparable to Trotsky (a real shock to some, no doubt).

The words “North Korea” do not belong in any serious discussion about socialist organising in the context of Occupy. Period.

D’Amato claims it is “absurd to compare the sectarian rivalries of the 1960s, in which Maoist and Stalinist sects with practically identical politics railed at each other about who is the ‘true vanguard’, to the factional disputes in the Russian movement between its revolutionary and reformist wing” a few lines after he makes that very comparison between my call for liquidating the outdated, inherited boundaries that divide today’s US socialist left and the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s foolish 1912 attempt to unite all factions of Russia’s socialist movement in an attempt to paper over profound practical differences.

What basis for unity?

Absurd comparisons aside, D’Amato raises a crucial point: on what basis can or should the socialist left unite?

D’Amato’s answer focuses on the negatives, on the divides he claims we can’t bridge. He writes: “a ‘united’ socialist organisation that has in its ranks both those who consider North Korea, China and Vietnam socialist, and those who think that they are bureaucratic despotism; both Stalinists and genuine Marxists; and both supporters and opponents of the Democratic Party would be a still-born project.”

Paul LeBlanc, a prominent ISO member, defends the Cuban government and does not support the “call for the revolutionary overthrow of that regime by the Cuban working class”. Does this make the ISO a “still-born project”? My answer is no. Perhaps D’Amato disagrees.

D’Amato continues:

It is one thing for leftists of different politics to “work together”—this has and will continue to happen. It is another thing to think that simply lumping forces together with diametrically different politics and methods of work will create any kind of functional, practical unity. Certainly that is one lesson of the Bolshevik experience worth preserving. That is not to say that broad socialist party independent and in opposition to the Democratic Party wouldn’t be a great advance if such a thing were possible in the United States today—what Binh proposes, however, would not produce such a result.

D’Amato’s formulations raise more questions than they answer. Are we to believe that the International Socialist Organization, Solidarity, Socialist Action, Socialist Organizer and Socialist Alternative have “diametrically different politics and methods of work” that preclude “any kind of functional, practical unity” in a common socialist organisation?

There’s no doubt that a political party requires a coherent vision and program or platform. The real question is: why must that coherence include a single point of view or a narrow range of views on what precisely the USSR was, or what Cuba is? Does anyone in the 99% have a burning desire to know where we stand on these historical and theoretical issues when so many of us face motgage foreclosure, eviction and long-term unemployment?

If the ISO can include in its ranks comrades who disagree on Cuba, what reason is there for organisational boundaries to separate most groups on the socialist left? Why insist that each group replicate each other’s publications, study groups, educationals and public meetings with almost identical political content as Dan Dimaggio pointed out instead of pooling our scarce resources and creating a more fruitful division of labour so that the socialist left can communicate with people in a 21st century manner as the far right has begun to do?

These are the questions we should be debating and figuring out answers to, not who is a modern-day Menshevik and what can’t be done.

Many comrades have asked me, “why can’t socialist groups work on joint projects using the ‘united front’ method where we ‘march separately, strike together’?”

Of course we can continue to work together on a united front basis. United fronts are necessary, but not sufficient for the tasks Occupy has put before us. Limiting our cooperation to united fronts means accepting the weak, fractured state of the socialist left inherited from our predecessors as a given instead of challenging, undermining, circumventing and eventually overcoming it.

Marching separately in the middle of a major social upheaval makes it difficult for us to strike together in the way that we need to if we want to have a meaningful, practical impact on the direction and character of Occupy.

Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists figured this out and, in conjunction with other forces, launched the Workers’ Democratic Party; why can’t we do the same?

If the socialist left emerges from Occupy somewhat larger, with more cooperation between some of its component parts, and its present divided state intact, then we will have failed to capitalise on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unify our ranks, re-merge with the working class and make socialism a force to be reckoned with on the US political landscape once again. Missing such an opportunity would be criminal, especially when almost one-third of the population of the United States has a positive view of socialism.

The question remains: on what basis can or should the socialist left unite?

I don’t have all the answers (remember, I’m not Trotsky).

My suggestion is to start with the obvious: opposition to capitalism (theory) and fighting all forms of austerity (practice). Every self-respecting socialist and even some who identify with anarchism could get together in a common organisation on this theoretical-practical basis.

What about ...?

What about reform versus revolution? What about the Democratic Party? What about (insert your worrisome issue here)?

As D’Amato says, “Today we are very far from such considerations.” These issues can only be resolved along the way, in practice, as we run up against them in our common journey in a common organisation that does not yet exist, but can and should.

The socialist left produces very convincing propaganda explaining “the need to break with the Democratic Party” but has proven unable to engineer such a break in the past seven decades. Refusing to unite “as a matter of principle” with forces and people who disagree with us (or who are confused, undecided or vacillate) on the Democratic Party in a common socialist organisation is the first step to ensuring that such a break never happens.

The Socialist Party of the Eugene V. Debs era established a tradition of (1) refusing to vote for Democratic politicians, (2) opposing what was then called “fusion” with the Democratic Party and (3) competing with both parties of the 1% whereever and whenever possible. This tradition arose on the basis of the experience gained by the populist movement, the first of many grassroots uprisings diverted by the Democratic Party.

The US socialist left can revive this old tradition for the following reasons. Half of the voting population abstained from presidential elections even before Occupy. The popularity of Ron Paul among occupiers and young people is a strong indication that people are so desperate for someone to run against the political system that they are willing to overlook the racist newsletters his campaign opportunistically produced for fundraising purposes, his opposition to regulating Wall Street and his refusal to break with the Republican Party. Last but not least, for many occupiers, President Obama was their last hope that the US political system might be able to somehow redeem itself. Nothing inspires direct action like electing a fresh-faced newcomer talking about hope and change who puts a knife into your back the minute he becomes commander-in-chief.

Now is the time for us to think big, take bold initiatives and fearlessly experiment. Doing so will lead to difficulties, false starts and even failures, but without failures in Wisconsin and Bloombergville Occupy Wall Street would not have succeeded. We cannot continue to cling to the existing state, methods and boundaries of the socialist left out of fear, inertia, or both, if we hope to create a broad revolutionary movement that threatens the rule of the 1% in this country.

Multi-tendency party

What would a common socialist organisation look like? How would it function?

Again, these are issues we have to figure out in practice, as we go along. Socialism cannot be designed or created by an enlightened few armed with a detailed “Marxist” blueprint; if we wish to remain true to that vision, a common socialist organisation that unites various trends cannot be dismissed because we don’t know in advance what it will look like, how it will work, the concrete moments of its development.

What we can say with certainty is this: rejecting the multi-tendency model leaves us with its opposite, the single-tendency model. This model has crippled both the Stalinist and the Trotskyist wings of the socialist movement internationally for decades, although in radically different ways, producing defeats of world-historic proportions for the former and competing sects, mutual excommunications and permanent irrelevance for the latter.

Multi-tendency groups already exist on the US political scene: the John Reed Society at Harvard, the Revolutionary Students Union on campuses in Utah, the Socialist Student Union at the University of Michigan. They are far from being “still-born projects”. They produce propaganda, engage in agitation, put on cultural events, create literature and bring people together socially, recreating on a small scale the vibrant, comradely culture that was once part and parcel of our movement’s glory days when Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, Lucy Parsons, Emma Goldman and other titans differed with one another while fighting the battles we read about in our labour history books.

Another socialist left is possible. We can build it together.

Anyone who wants to participate in making these possibilities into realities should email thenorthstar.info@gmail.com.

[Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street Journal, The Indypendent, Asia Times Online, Znet, Counterpunch, International Socialist Review, Green Left Weekly, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal and thenorthstar.info, a collaborative blog by and for occupiers from across the US. His other writings can be found at www.planetanarchy.net.]