Road maps, dead ends and the search for fresh ground -- How can we build the socialist movement in the 21st century?

[For more discussion on how socialists organise, click HERE.]

By Dan DiMaggio

December 2010 -- Cultural Logic, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Dan DiMaggio's permission -- For the past seven-plus years I have devoted much of my life to effort to build a socialist movement in the United States. As a member of one of the many tiny socialist groups on the US left, I have organised dozens of anti-war, labour solidarity, immigrant rights and other rallies and campaigns. I have toured the country to speak at college campuses about socialism. I have set up numerous study groups and conferences and written and edited hundreds of articles for socialist publications. Most people might say, “Dan, you’re crazy if you think that socialism can be achieved in a country like the United States!” But despite the challenges, I hope to continue doing this for the next 50 or so years.

Lately, though, I’ve started to wonder just how the &*^$ a viable socialist movement can actually be built in the US. I’ve been grappling with this question for much of the last year as I attempt to overcome a funk rooted in my sense that the current organisational forms of the socialist movement, to which I and many others have given so much of our time and energy, are a dead end. Recently it seems like every time I try to raise a finger to help the movement, I am overcome by a crippling sense of the futility of it all.

My paralysis does not stem from pessimism about the possibilities for social change in the US. Rather, it is rooted in frustrations with the current methods of organisation dominant in the socialist movement, methods which make a difficult task even harder – if not impossible. I can’t shake the feeling that despite our best intentions, we are wasting resources by taking roads that lead to nowhere. It doesn’t help that the main form of organisation – tiny, competing groups divided by marginal differences – is out of tune with the content of our aims – “the full material and spiritual liberation of the toilers”. I’ve come to feel that all the heroic effort in the world cannot invest inherently barren forms with meaning.

This piece is my attempt to stimulate critical thinking about the way forward for the US socialist movement. I hope that it will be of interest to practicing socialists as well as other progressive activists, because I think that a healthy, attractive socialist movement can help contribute to the rebuilding of a broader and more powerful left. I realise I am not the first person to say what is written below, and there is much that remains unexplored and unanswered. But I hope it will lead to a productive and collaborative discussion that might open new possibilities for anti-capitalist organising.

To continue reading, download the article (pdf) HERE, or read on screen below.

Discussion: Road maps, dead ends and the search for fresh ground -- How to build the US socialist movement ...

In making your case for an "all-inclusive" (my quotes, not yours) socialist party, you frequently quoted Lenin's "What is to be Done." Do you think his subsequent activity, and his writings - for example, "Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back" and "The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky" - express agreement with your views or something different, even in the eyes of some, something "sectarian?"

Lenin argued for an "all-inclusive" RSDLP in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (you got the title wrong in your comment; not sure if that was irony or a joke). There was no talk on his part of separating from the Mensheviks in a new, Bolshevik-only party or of expelling them from the RSDLP. Even in 1917 Lenin favored unity with the Mensheviks:

" regard to certain local groups of workers who are aligned with the Mensheviks, etc., but who strive to uphold the position of internationalism against ‘revolutionary defencism’ and against voting for the loan, etc., the policy of our Party should be to support such workers and groups, to seek closer relations with them, and support unity with them on the basis of a definite break with the petty-bourgeois betrayal of socialism."

I can't comment on the Kautsky book except to say that it was focused on Kautsky and the question of bourgeois/Soviet democracy, not on party building.


I think this document is very timely, important and relevant. It really does lay open the inner workings of many of the Socialist organisations existing today (mainly in Western Societies). I think this document is perfectly relevant to Australian Socialist groups as well, and it has given me a lot of new thoughts and questions about organisation and Left Unity projects in Australia. In Adelaide, for example, we have a grouping called (funnily enough) 'Left Unity' that aims to organise the Socialist/Communist/Anarchists groups in the city to work together on campaigns. We have done some good work in creating forums and campaigns but the process is a constant struggle, and we are currently looking for a way to make the grouping more formal and organised. These sorts of projects should be in every city that has a collection of Socialist parties, even if only for those parties to get out of their isolation and debate in the open for once.

As much as I agree with Dan's diagnosis the core handicap is not organisational form but political will. That's where the inertia comes from. In part this is due to a schematic narrowness and preference for a standalone and separate partying rooted in sectarianism. But the other draw back is that there has to be something concrete on offer through a unity agenda -- and what would that be?

If folk did their home work they'd see that there are indeed many left unity packages in motion throughout the world ...with varying success. There's nothing formulaic about the unity business except some way to measure success.

Inevitably that is being judged by (a) number of new members and (b) electoral returns. The irony that the major left objection to regroupment enterprises is usually programatic is so often put aside when success can be measured by the numbers.

You want their attention, then gather the votes.

And herein is the complication. Not until already existing projects prove that they are both electorally viable and draw significant numbers to their banner then the issue will fester quietly in the background. That some are indeed generating kosher quantities -- such as the Danish Red Green Alliance -- needs to be emphasised. But as soon as there's an event or position that "proves" how reformist, unMarxist and misguided the whole project is then the far left orgs will hone in for a dismissive polemic (most recent example: The NPA in Crisis - but the long term campaign against he Scottish Socialist Party is another example of the lengths the sects will go to assert their self righteousness.)

For now the examples are cherry picked to prove a point.

The other complication is that none of this happens over night and there is an attitude both among the orgs and independent socialists that to be viable, and warranting investment or attnetion, 'success' must be an immediate reward.

But the facts on the ground are not simply about engineering a short term strategic manoevre . The key fact on the ground is that the present way of doing political business has and is failing the tasks we have set ourselves in the face of an acute crisis of capitalism.

The current gaggle of left orgs , regardless of their merits,are simply taking us no where in a hurry.While they have sustained an ideology and enriched activism, the sixties New Left forms have reached their use by date. This is not about being disloyal to Leninism but about having the guts to confront the core question of deciding what to do next. In that sense the far left suffers from an entrenched cowardice and conservatism in preferring a pessimistic existence on the political margins rather than exploring aggressively, ways and means to come in out of the Cold War.

The complication is that as far as anyone knows or guesses, the one tool that has -- or may have -- political promise is left unity.

And that is the elephant in the room.


There is nothing to disagree with in Dan's article. But neither is there anything new being said here, nor anything to explain the political crisis of the anti-capitalist left. Dan elaborates on Naomi Klein's truism that the crisis we face is one of the absence of a viable left by offering up yet another deconstruction of the sectarian organizational model of "vanguardism." I think like Peter Camejo before him, Dan has things backside-to here. The absence of viable socialist left is an echo of the absence of a mass oppositional movement to the present system today. (Although perhaps it's the Occupy movement that has inspired Dan to undertake this difficult re-thinking). The SP reached its Debsian peak around 1910 following on 30 years of mass struggle and self organization from the Knights of Labor, the AFL and a massive populist movement that gave rise to its own political party. In the reaction of the 1920s the American communist movement was a welter of mostly foreign language federations. It took the mass strikes of 1934-38, the rise of the CIO, and the eruption of mass struggles globally, for a vibrant political culture of the Left, and a socialist movement grouped around small but genuinely mass-based socialist parties (the CP, SWP, SP etc) to emerge and nourish one another.
As long as there is no mass movement towards the left, there will be tiny, ever fissioning sects burning out their small cadre while keeping the red flag flying.
Bob Montgomery

"As long as there is no mass movement towards the left, there will be tiny, ever fissioning sects burning out their small cadre while keeping the red flag flying."

Occupy is proving that even when there is a mass movement towards the left that this will not change.


It’s not so much a dead end as it is a circular road — endless conferences, meetings, meetings about meetings, all to maintain an incredibly slow pace of growth (or rather to keep the number of people coming in slightly higher than the number of people leaving). One thing Dan could have expanded on is that the narrow practice of these groups means that it is literally impossible for anything outside a very narrow range of activities ever has a chance of winning the hearing of a minority, much less majority support.

Comment by Binh — January 6, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

I agree with the circular comment.

Keeps going round and round with no end.

Instead of so many small groups, there should be a mainstream socialist party with a list of specific issues they stand for and a majority that’s in agreement.

That’s the problem with Occupy. Too many sub groups within the group with too many issues and no focal point.

Not every member of any group is going to be in complete agreement with every issue they stand for or against.

But if they can find a majority who stand in agreement with most of the beliefs, then they can build a larger following from there.

Comment by Deborah Jeffries — January 6, 2012 @ 10:31 pm

A working person in America today who has developed a healthy anti-capitalist sentiment and knows that our current economic order must be replaced by something entirely different must look at the collection of socialist parties and groups around the U.S. and upon catching one whiff of the insularism, sectarianism, and bickering about obscure points of philosophical theory, semantics and “betrayals,” walk away in disgust. Imagine if capitalists were similarly unorganized — if the existing Republican Party were to splinter into 1,200 groups that wanted nothing to do with each other. If you had irreconcilable “tendencies” within capitalist parties that refused to even talk to each other because forty years ago there was a “split” over the national bank question in early 1800s. The present state of “socialist” organizing in this country is a laughingstock.

Comment by David — January 7, 2012 @ 1:12 am

The following is an opinion, not an argument, on the question posed by Dan DiMaggio: how can one “build a socialist movement in the United States?”

Working people, especially in times past, were used to forming teams on an ad hoc basis to get their joint projects done, whether farm work, shop work and even industrial work. An essential aspect of such practice is a succinctness and speed of communication. A group of three or four carpenters on a house project do not waste much time deciding who’s carrying up the plywood, who’s nailing down the roofing shingles and who’s going to the taqueria to get the lunch orders. Management types call this “work flow.”

Experience merging your work flow with others trains you to communicate much with little, and quickly, with others similarly experienced. This becomes less explicit with office work (staring at a computer screen eight hours a day), and the skill is less developed among people who work in parallel isolation. This skill would have been highly developed in the types of workers Karl Marx would have been familiar with, but it is not as common among today’s workers in the United States, because a smaller fraction of the population does 19th century type work.

Construction work today, even with power tools, is not so different from how it was performed in the 19th century, and even earlier. But the nature of work has changed so much over the last century (even the last thirty years) that far fewer people have learned how to mesh their work flows efficiently. That is the skill essential to the effectiveness of a political organization. The big questions, “what are we fighting for?” and “how do we proceed?” are resolved quickly because everyone “just knows” the answers. The only issues to discuss are those of the moment: who’s hammering?, who’s carrying?, who’s fetching?, and who’s in charge for now? There are a few (a few) regular meetings to go over the job, iron out problems and reassign tasks and leadership roles in an agreeable manner. The less friction generated and smoother work flow merging carried on, the greater the percentage of the collective effort that goes into achieving results.

The other socializing influence on 19th and 20th century industrial workers was the process of industrialization itself. The use of human beings as repetitive motion machines in an organized structure of work flow that ingested raw material and produced manufactured products. The “assembly line” and “efficiency” had their baneful psychological effects, but they also had their reflection in the “efficiency of scale” mentality and meshing of efforts that industrial workers brought to their unions, and the socialist political parties they supported (e.g., Eugene V. Debs). The craftsman’s skill and discipline of autonomously meshing work flows was compressed into assembly line factory work, and the shaping/distortions of the psyche from these occupational activities was naturally carried over to the workers own collective enterprises. Collective work attuned them to collective awareness, the process of industrialization compressed them into organized assemblages, and the continuous pressures for efficiency and production stamped socialism into them.

This mentality has died away because the nature of work that formed it has died away — here. To find it today, go to China, where the officially Communist government is just as severe as Andrew Carnegie was to throttle independent socialism in the form of labor unions. American socialists today are people who pick up books, or read from computer screens, and choose to associate in clubs that discuss specialized topics in history, and try to relate them to events of the present day, and in the best instances to contribute to the analysis and resolution of current social and economic problems. These sound like sociology professors, not sheet metal workers pounding out Ferrari car bodies by hand (in the 1950s and 1960s) and then riding home on bicycles.

The perceived problem with organizing socialists today may be that you really don’t have a collection of industrially pre-socialized workers seeking to ensure their economic survival though collective action, but a symposium of college junior faculty determined to have their theories persevere against rivals. I was once the president of a unionization group for scientists and engineers (physicists, chemists, engineers with graduate degrees); it didn’t work, they were all so smart individually that they were determined to be collectively stupid (with a small minority that was quite effective).

I think the reason organizing a 21st century American socialist party is difficult is because those enthused about socialism have little connection to the concerns of most Americans (quaintly called “workers”), and they in turn are fixated on the conditions (and distractions) in which they live out their lives, and have no interest in “socialism” or anything theoretical, and are only interested in what specific solutions you have for their problems in the here-and-now.

People will follow those leaders who spell out concrete solutions that work. They will not care if that leader looks into a crystal ball or Das Kapital to tingle his brain so it spits out workable solutions, like Midas’ goose laying golden eggs. As long as the ideas are golden and steadily produced, the public will follow, but few people will ever care to know about the inspiration that tingled the sorcerer’s brain. You have to lead with results.

Even worse, you don’t necessarily gain power and glory by putting out those concrete golden ideas, because others may be far better qualified to translate “your” ideas into social reality. If an idea is really good, it will be stolen. But for these socio-political situations you shouldn’t care so long as the ideas improve society. If you want anything more out of the process, personally, then you’re just a careerist and the hell with you.

In summary, if your goal is to organize a party that draws in people to join in your enthusiasm for socialism (adopting a socialist canon to interpret their observations of life), you will not find overwhelming public interest. If instead, you wish to organize a political party that produces workable solutions to popular problems, then you will gain public support commensurate with your degree of concrete achievement (from the public’s perspective) but you would have to be willing to keep your socialism personal, or even let it go.

Comment by manuelgarciajr — January 7, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

I thoroughly enjoyed this article, which identifies many weaknesses which the Australian left also experiences.

I particularly like Dan's list of potential projects, although they are a bit abstract and shopping-list. But it's not hard to imagine a joint discussion conference organised by different left organisations in Australia today to discuss our common work - after all, many of our activists jointly organise conferences around different areas of movement work, as well as big national conferences for Socialist Alliance such as the recent Climate Change / Social Change conference in Melbourne or Socialist Alternative's annual Marxism conference. To organise a joint forum or conference for us to lay our organising plans for the year and work our joint left initiatives would require a certain amount of political maturity, but could potentially give strength to the activism of all of us in socialist organisations, as well as many unaffiliated activists.

For a post I made in response to this article (as well as Socialist Alternative's tasks & objectives document recently reposted by John Passant), check out:…

Defining tasks in the way Passant does has left the socialist playing the role of rearguard in Occupy (see Your criticism of that document is a welcome break from the ideology-centered view of so many on the socialist left. I located the approach you criticize in Trotskyism generally (

The way to overcome this approach is through doing things radically differently. Instead of creating membership organizations it's best to create looser formations, circles, study groups, where people can engage in joint activity. If that happens on a mass scale it would create the basis for a party worthy of the name.

Bro, this is a good document.

Something I think, from my experience, is that we need to become what Myles Horton called "Long Haul People". If you don't know who Myles Horton is go read the book "The Long Haul" because that's one of the best books about long term vision, the socialist and labor and civil rights movement in the South there is.

Now that that is said, we need to figure out how do we make activism sustainable. Because in a lot of these organizations, it is not. I was active in the ISO from 2000 to 2008. I am no longer active in it because I live some where there is no ISO branch and I am not going to dedicate the time needed to start one as I have very little free time and a lot on my plate already. There were a lot of good things that group does and did and will do. Most of the things it didn't or couldn't do is more the result of a great de-activizing and conservative shift that took place among smart people in this country from 2003 to 2011. That's not our fault, so let's not waste damn lamenting damnable objective conditions.

No 1 prob? I think it's the revolving door membership thing. Now let's think about this for a second. There's a revolving door membership in the ISO. Okay, now why is that? It is because that organization sets the bar for membership too high. No, not in the sense of hefty dues or hard to swallow dogma. The dues and dogma are pretty light and flexible and I endorse both. The problem is the level of activity. Maybe it wasn't like this before the antiwar movement, it didn't seem to be for me, but what do I know. Anyways, war is a really big deal, because a lot of folks get killed and economies get destroyed and millions of lives are ruined. So all of us spent a lot of time and effort trying to prevent it, and those of us who actually cared and didn't quit when the chips were doing spent a lot more time building the resistance In The Belly Of The Beast during its ongoing happening.

Now it's good to sacrifice a lot of your time for a cause that is right, and no one is going to argue with that. But sacrificing all your free time and then some is just not sustainable, and I don't care who you are, but it is just not. People get older and do things like get pregnant or decide they'd like to be married, or they work a job that takes a lot from them physically and mentally. And then there is the ISO. And I happen to notice that a lot of the people on the steering committee of the ISO have been on the steering committee of the ISO for quite a while, and they might not be as well integrated into the daily grind and moods of ordinary working class job holding people. So this realization, that sacrificing all of your free time and then some to the cause not being a great idea might not get noticed by them, and that isn't their fault. If they want to sacrifice all their free time and then some to the cause that is great and we need people like that. But we can't build a socialist organization that is big, or sustainable, like that.

How much time are we talking? Let's say there's the meeting from 7-9:30. 2.5 hours. Then let's hang out for another 1.5 hours at the bar and eat and talk politics. I'm a big fan. Maybe there was a fraction meeting before or after the meeting, there's .5 hours. Then let's go be part of a movment so I'll join the antiwar movement and go to their meeting 2.5 hours, make some flyers or print or give them out that week 1.5 hours and go to one protest that week 3 hours. Now at the antiwar movement and the protest I want to make a good intervention so I want to read that paper and talk about how to be good socialists with some other socialists so there is 1 + 1 hours. Oh hey we should do a paper sale too. There's 2 hours. Oh wait, we should all do 2 paper sales a week, so lets ad on another 2 hours. We also should do a study group, now there is 2 hours for a study group and another 2 hours for reading. That's a pretty average week and I was a pretty active socialist who would do things like register the room and meet the speaker and sometimes even meet with people I knew to talk about socialism. So let's add another 2 hours for miscellaneous for those dedicated high achievers.

Now what are we at?

We're at 21 hours a week of political activity. Now let's add to that 20 hours a week for a part time job and 30 hours a week to be full time student. Now we've got a student trying to learn things who is looking at a 71 hour week and they better not forget to study, lower their grades, and fuck up that scholorship.

Alternately, let's look at a working class person who works 40 hours a week and who spends 1.5X5 = 7 hours a week commuting. Now they are looking at a 68.5 hour week. And how many working class people work more than one job? How many work doubles and pick up extra shifts all the time?

Now lets say you love someone and want to date them. Or maybe you have a project of your own you're working on, like a hobby or a book or something. Maybe you have a kid.

Holy fuck.

At best, if you are a smart person, and super dedicated, you will put up with that for a year or two and then decide it isn't worth it. Because it really isn't. The return on investment for a revolutionary activist in the United States is terrible. Now I just spent a decade of my life being a great activist and the war is still going on and the unionization rate isn't any higher and racism and the death penalty still exist! Good grief! Have I wasted my time?

Yes and no. Yes if you expected immediate change. You'd be better off spending that time going back to school so you can get a better paying job. No argument there.

And no, if you actually want systemic change. The fight for a socialist future means we need to build leaders and people who are smart. Not just socialist organization cadre because organizations come and go. Look at the development of the class as a whole. We need people in their 20s and 30s who are working next to you who know how to build a protest, how to organize a meeting, how to phone bank, how to make a flyer, how to exercise political judgement. We need to train those leaders. That is most important. Then when the need and opportunity for struggle happens, you can get a better organized struggle that hopefully accomplishes more.

If you can get those people in touch with each other in an organization, that is great too.

But the organization can't stay in the way of the people. People's lives are more important than an organization. My kid I want to parent and hang out with will always be more important to me than any other organization of people who are not my kid. Period. Same goes for my wife, and at least half as much for my aspirations in terms of where I live and work.

The struggle to make the ISO a mass organization without a revolving door membership is the struggle to get it to operate on the level which ordinary people can sustainably participate in. The current leadership isn't going to be able to figure that out, bless their souls, because they are extra-ordinary people who sacrifice everything for the cause and as such they can't understand the priorities and time constraints of most people. But until we figure that out we'll be small, and confined to students, at least as much because students don't have families and often work less than working class people, as it is because working class people are afraid of socialism. They've grown a lot in the past decade. The Occupy Movement shows us that!

Let me know when this starts happening and I'll give the center a call and maybe get active again.

On the long haul issue: "The art of communist organization consists in making use of everything and everyone in the proletarian class struggle..." (From:…)

What this means to me is that everyone has a role in a revolutionary movement, regardless of their personal situation. If all you can do for the cause is make flyers, make flyers; if what you can do is moderate an email list and respond to inbox queries, then that's what you do. The "Leninist" groups do not function in this way. Instead, what we have is a series of escalating commitments, both in practice and in theory.

"The dues and dogma are pretty light and flexible and I endorse both. The problem is the level of activity."

I disagree. Again, we have a commitment escalator, both in theory and in practice. You pointed this out in your comment how people end up running around so much they burn out after a few years, creating the revolving door.

This is related to the theory escalator. What I mean is this: when you join, you are told that the main requirements of membership is political agreement with the group's credo/program and a minimum mandator level of activity, 1 paper sale a week and a branch meeting.

What you quickly discover is that the group has all kinds of positions that are not in the basic program you agreed to on things like N. Korea, one-state solution for Palestine, permanent revolution, privilege theory. These positions you are obliged to defend publicly in the name of "democratic centralism" even if you don't agree. Eventually you are pressured to leave or toe the "line" either by group members themselves and/or by leaders.

A similar process happens when you challenge the commitment escalator. You are accused of not being serious, "not won to Leninism," being a pessimist, not accepting in practice "the perspective" everyone else agrees on, and a series of arguments/conversations are had whereby people try to "win" you. If you aren't "won," you end up leaving and the organization loses; if you are won you sacrafice more than you should which in the long run is unsustainable, so the organization ends up losing again.

"The return on investment for a revolutionary activist in the United States is terrible" because we are setting ourselves up for this by being inflexible and exclusive rather than adapable and inclusive.


The creation in the United States of a highly visible political voice uncompromisingly opposed to imperialism, militarism, and the ruling elite is a patriotic imperative. We own this to the rest of the world and to our image of ourselves – also as some slight redemption for for the horrors perpetrated in our name. This movement would consistently view the entire hegemonic establishment as a "them", never as an "us". It would not necessarily subscribe to a specifically socialist agenda - indeed anarchism and other forms of progressive radicalism might have the greater popular appeal. The set task would be removal this principle obstacle to worldwide justice - in this it would inspire and be inspired by progressives worldwide. The specific details of a just and sustainable future- of the form of the state and of financial-economic arrangements - will naturally emerge in the process of reconstruction.