United States: debates on strategy and organization in light of the rebellion

By Luis Meiners, ISL US

We are living a historical moment. The rebellion against systemic racism sparked by the murder of George Floyd has acquired an extension and strength not seen in decades. The immense repressive deployment has failed to contain it. On the contrary, the protests have generated ruptures and tensions at the highest levels of state power. The radical nature of the moment marks the need to face strategic debates in the socialist left. The objective of this article is to contribute to the necessary task of addressing them.

Over the past few months, and increasingly in the last two weeks in particular, we have experienced what Lenin pointed out about the existence of weeks in which decades elapse. These are moments in which history is condensed, and ruptures that seemed unimaginable take place. This is one of those moments.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic and the global economic crisis, the rebellion that has broken out has fundamentally changed the coordinates of the political debate. It is a massive response, on the streets, to a system based on structural inequalities that have been exposed in an extremely painful way over the past few months. The economic violence of unemployment and poverty, the bosses´ violence against essential workers, the violence of racism and police brutality, and of course, the violence of a virus in bodies that are unevenly crossed by all these forms of structural violence.

Faced with this scenario, socialists find ourselves without a political tool, without an organization that can connect with the current wave of radicalization, connecting it with the experiences and history of struggle and their lessons, and contribute to push it forward. The crisis of the radical left occurred in parallel to the rise of reformist currents that grew, largely through the Sanders campaign, by capitalizing on a period of radicalization which opened after the 2008 crisis. Within this framework, important debates took place around the strategy for a radical transformation of society. We want to return to these debates, in light of the development of events.

State, capitalist democracy and socialist rupture

One of the key strategic debates that took place in the course of this process was around the possibilities (and the need) for a revolutionary rupture under bourgeois democratic regimes. Rehearsing a “radical” recovery of Kautsky, this position was based on the idea that “the path to anticapitalist rupture in conditions of political democracy passed through the election of a workers´ party to government.”[1]

Indeed, this position adopts that statement as a premise. “Kautsky rejected the relevance of an insurrectionary strategy within capitalist democracies. His case was simple: the majority of workers in parliamentary countries would generally seek to use legal mass movements and the existing democratic channels to advance their interests. Technological advances, in any case, had made modern armies too strong to be overthrown through uprisings on the old nineteenth-century model of barricade street fighting. For these reasons, democratically elected governments had too much legitimacy among working people and too much armed strength for an insurrectionary approach to be realistic. History has confirmed Kautsky’s predictions. Not only has there never been a victorious insurrectionary socialist movement under a capitalist democracy, but only a tiny minority of workers have ever even nominally supported the idea of an insurrection.”[2]

The first historical argument that “confirms” Kautsky’s predictions is, to say the least, misleading. Exactly the same could be said about Kautsky’s strategy. Indeed, nowhere in the world, not even under democratic regimes, has there been a succesful socialist movement through the electoral route. From Allende’s Chile and Mitterrand’s France to Syriza in Greece, we find the same results: capitulation or violent defeat. Sanders’ own defeat, or Corbyn’s in England, testify to the difficulties of this path, not only to produce fundamental changes, but even to win elections. Of course, those who support this argument could enter the terrain of an analysis of the specific mistakes made by each of these processes and explore the possible hypothetical scenarios if alternate courses of action had been taken. All of this is perfectly valid and necessary to learn from history. But it eliminates the aura of absolute certainty and irrefutable affirmation that was intended to bolster the argument. The author of the quoted article criticizes the extrapolation of 1917 Russia, but ends up using 1918 Finland as an example. An honest debate would require both examples to be valid, or neither one to be.

I would like to dwell on the argument of “minority support” in the working class, which is linked to what was previously stated about the use of legal channels and the legitimacy of capitalist democracies. It is precisely this part that can best be analyzed in light of the events of the past 12 days. It is evident that under “normal” circumstances, the vast majority of the working class and all oppressed sectors try to resolve their demands through the formal mechanisms of bourgeois democracy. The point is that these demands cannot be permanently resolved through the mechanisms of any bourgeois state, no matter how broad its democratic forms. And this is so because of the structural limits imposed by the capitalist system and the class character of the state. Sooner or later, the demands of the working class collide against the wall of the interests of the capitalist class.

In “normal” situations, the ruling class manages to find space to maneuver. Sometimes it is forced to give up ground. But in conditions of crisis, its margins are reduced. When the limits emerge, conditions are created for working class and people´s self-activity to exceed the institutional framework. That is when insurrections can arise. History has shown that these situations occur periodically. In some parts of the world, constantly. Other parts have seen decades of relative stability. But that stability does not last forever, precisely because of the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system and the class character of the state. Denying these inherent contradictions led 19th and early 20th century reformists to elaborate an evolutionary conception of historical development, and a gradualist approach of the transition from capitalism to socialism.

Far from this gradual evolution, if there is something that we can effectively learn from history, it is that it unfolds through leaps, shocks, advances and reversals, sudden changes and periods of stability. There are times when millions experience in their own lives, concretely, these fundamental contradictions of the capitalist system and the class character of the state. In these moments the activity of the working class and the masses exits the “democratic channels”. At this time, a militant organization can decisively influence events, and convince millions of the need for a radical break with the state and the system based on concrete lived experience, and organize them to achieve these objectives.

This is one of those exceptional moments. And it is the result of the breakthrough of an enormous amount of accumulated contradictions. The “legitimacy” of capitalist democracy has been in crisis for a long time. Even in the “advanced capitalist” countries, where there were decades of stability, the erosion of the welfare state and the neoliberal offensive of the last decades has generated an increased attrition of political regimes. The historical bourgeois parties of the west have experienced major crises. In the last decade this process has accelerated. The 2008 crisis weakened the foundations of the stability of political regimes, producing a growing social and political polarization. Even before the pandemic, we witnessed a cycle of rebellions from Hong Kong to Chile.

This situation has become more acute with the pandemic and the economic crisis. Phenomena that we were more accustomed to seeing in semi-colonial countries had already acquired increasing relevance in imperialist countries in recent years and this has become an even more intense reality. Millions of unemployed, poverty, crises in health systems and services, and even hunger. But also a trend towards increasingly sharp crises and social outbursts, from the yellow vests of France to the anti-racist rebellion in the United States. We are at the beginning of a qualitative change.The pandemic has unleashed an economic crisis of historic proportions and exposed structural inequalities. The disastrous responses of governments have accelerated political crises. This is the framework in which the present situation unfolds, and which the rebellion we are seeing contributes to deepening. It is precisely there that different strategic orientations come to be tested. 

Strategy and organization

With around 70,000 members, the DSA is the most important organization on the left. However, it has been far behind events. Undoubtedly thousands of DSA members are an active part of the protests. But the DSA has not had an organized presence in them. Beyond correct statements, it has not intervened with its own perspective on events, nor has it called on its members to organize and develop a democratically debated common orientation.

This fundamental weakness has several causes. In part, it is because parts of the organization have a reductionist and inadequate understanding of the role of the struggle against racism, of the movement for Black Liberation, in class struggle. In some cases this is combined with a rejection and mistrust in the transformative capacity of the irruption of the mass movement on the political scene. But, in combination with these elements, the understanding that elections are the fundamental road for an anti-capitalist rupture is at the root of these weaknesses.

Although the explosive growth of the DSA in recent years leads to the existence of diverse orientations within it, and even notable differences that are expressed in public debates and are translated into action, in general terms it is strongly electorally oriented. This means that, beyond differences between branches and tendencies, its membership is a relatively loose knit network, and the electoral dispute has a decisive weight in the activity and specific tasks that the organization proposes to its members. In practice, this means that in the midst of historical days like the ones we are experiencing, in cities like New York, no meetings have been organized where members can actively participate to coordinate the DSA’s intervention in the protests. Or that the “Defund the police” campaign proposed, is not organized along militant lines, through flyers, public interventions, mass communication, street demonstrations, etc. In a moment of immense radicalization, there are no spaces to debate and organize how a socialist party can be part of events and simultaneously argue within the movement for the need to fight against the system as a whole, and to build an organization for that goal, advancing socialist ideas in a moment of enormous openness. This not only weakens the organization, it also has negative consequences for the development of the movement. We must ask ourselves, what would happen, for example, if the DSA with its 70,000 members intervened with a common strategy to develop the mobilization, confront Trump, call assemblies and coordinations to decide how to deepen the fight? The dominant conception produces a divorce between “political” activity conceived exclusively in electoral terms, and activity in movements. This stops the organization from acting on this rebellion, that is to say, from truly engaging in mass politics.

Given this scenario, the need to fight to build an organization that is up to the task is urgent. We need a revolutionary party, a party for action. This organization must promote political debate, with a truly democratic internal organization in which the policy, orientations and tasks are decided by all its members. Simultaneously, it has to be centralized in order to enhance its strength, jointly focusing efforts towards common political goals. The leadership necessary for this must be democratically elected and held accountable. A party that forms cadres and activists to turn all their political and organizational capacity to the class struggle. That can link each of the partial struggles with the objective of radical social transformation. Such a network of militants could play a decisive role in times like these.

This fundamental task has become urgent in the present period. Undoubtedly, there are mistakes and previous experiences that make this task difficult. But there is an enormous space to move forward. A fundamental step in this direction is to regroup revolutionary socialist militants, today dispersed, in many cases active in unions and social movements, in others organized in various left currents. But to advance in this sense, those of us who share the need to fight for this perspective must begin by grouping ourselves together, forming an organization on shared strategic bases, from which to actively participate in the class struggle and in the debates on the left, advocating the need for a revolutionary regroupment. There are comrades who come from different tendencies, different traditions, but who share a common understanding of the present and the tasks at hand. Getting organized together is a central first step. Sectarian quarrels cannot prevail over the magnitude of the task.

On a more general level, this regrouping will have the fundamental task of fighting for the construction of a socialist third party, independent of the two parties of capital. This involves fighting for this perspective both inside and outside the DSA, to build this organization. Hundreds of comrades are already fighting for this around the country. What if we had a tool to conduct this fight in an organized way? We must find the way to move forward together. From the International Socialist League we want to contribute to take decisive steps in this regard. The moment is now.

[1] Blanc, E. Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care). Available at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/04/karl-kautsky-democratic-socialism-elections-rupture

[2] Blanc, E. Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care). Available at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/04/karl-kautsky-democratic-socialism-elections-rupture