Four distinct approaches to revolutionary organization
I want to provide a schematic framing of what I see as the different efforts at organizing on the revolutionary Left in this moment. This is as a way to situate what I believe is unique to the Tempest organizing project.
I will explore what I see as four approaches by revolutionaries and revolutionary formations. These are generalizations, not fit for every individual case, but nonetheless I hope they will be useful.
The backdrop to these different political methods are the widespread crises of the revolutionary Left around the world, the failure to meet the challenges of the post-2008 recession world, and failure to meet the challenges of a previously resurgent social democratic or reformist Left, for example the Bernie Sanders experience in the United States and the Jeremy Corbyn leadership challenge in the United Kingdom, but there are many other examples internationally.
The first of the four groupings essentially liquidated themselves. The response of these forces, over the rising of seemingly vibrant reformist projects, was to reject the need for independent revolutionary organization and to liquidate themselves wholesale into what has since 2020 become a rightward moving social democracy.
Especially after the second defeat of the Sanders challenge, and following the wholesale rout of Corbynism, these forces largely failed to account for and reassess the implications of these defeats, and have essentially doubled down on an electoralist strategy, an uncritical popular front approach to the Biden administration, and happy talk in the Guardian and elsewhere to the effect of “pay no attention to the realities, comrades, the Left is winning.”
The second approach is a model of so-called “base-building” that defers the importance of organizing for revolutionary politics in the here and now. This trend starts with a valid premise—that the institutions of working-class organization and resistance have been hollowed out and weakened—and then postpones all other questions of a revolutionary party to the future, after these institutions have been rebuilt.
This means deferring questions such as: How are these initial sites of resistance and class recomposition to be built? What is the role of revolutionaries in this process? What is the role of political debate? Or explicitly revolutionary politics? What is the vehicle through which inevitable political struggle is undertaken in these formations?
The base-building trend asserts the need to build so-called sites of articulation or dual power that are both not part of the nonprofit industrial complex and not tied up in the networks of ruling-class party politics and patronage. A fine goal. But how these are to come into being is left for the unnamed forces of class struggle to sort out.
How are revolutionaries to be educated and trained? Assuming this is still important, are we simply relying on this to happen through these sites of articulation? This brings us back to the problem of how politics and struggle evolve within these formations.
As much as the base-builders deride pure politics, or propaganda, who is to challenge the dominant ideas and arguments, or more deeply the dominant ideologies, without such a process (be it from “within” or “without”)?
The third trend is one that has largely failed to account for the crises of the revolutionary Left and the model of organization building that has been predominant on the revolutionary Left for the entire post–World War II period, with variations at different conjunctures and within different national experiences.
In reality, we must take stock of the fact that the revolutionary Left has failed since the 1930s to overcome its divorce from the working class, working-class communities, and the working-class vanguard (when it did exist). This third approach to revolutionary politics denies this.
There are different currents within this third trend. Some believe that all of the hard questions for revolutionaries have been answered, and that what we need to do is apply hard-won lessons, like a mathematical equation, to the present to come up with a program that will bring about revolution. This is most prominent in orthodox Trotskyism, which looks to find agreement around a distinct revolutionary program as the key to unlocking the revolutionary potential of the working class, without reckoning with the relatively tiny group of forces we represent or with the complete hollowing out of working-class institutions and infrastructures of resistance. Implicitly these forces think such interim steps can be skipped.
Another version of this third trend takes a stagist approach to party building, arguing that what is most important is to draw clear political lines, plant a flag of revolutionary politics, and draw in individuals in the ones and twos to confront the challenge of reformism, the Democratic Party, and so on. The problem with this approach is that it too often elides the question of how we are to win people who don’t share our revolutionary politics, and the dynamics of struggle and building common fronts of organizing takes second place to an often sterile propagandism.
An aside is in order about the broad-party experiments over the last couple of decades. There is often a wholesale rejection of the varied socialist attempts to build broader formations, without taking account of the specific dynamics in different countries, the different approaches which marked these experiments, and the different stakes that came into play at different moments. While I agree that one clear lesson from these experiments is that revolutionaries need to maintain their own organized current in such left formations, the idea that broader organized formations are per se, everywhere and always, out of bounds is a mistake and often held in common by this third trend.
In other words, the fact of hardened principled politics while foundational—and without which we cannot move forward—is not a sufficient basis for building the type of revolutionary organization we need or to meet the challenges of the deep crises we are facing.
What I think distinguishes Tempest, an example of the fourth trend—and I stress, not the only one—is that we are hoping to define our organizing project not just by the shared politics, but just as importantly by a set of shared perspectives on what is best able to strengthen the revolutionary current and successfully participate in the process of rebuilding, at every level, an infrastructure of resistance in the context of mass political polarization and radicalization, unprecedented struggle internationally, and a terrain in the antidemocratic US context that is significantly unfavorable to an electoralist left.
In contrast to the first trend, I believe that the prospect of a successful peaceful struggle for social democracy in the United States is so remote as to be inconceivable.
In contrast to the second trend, we cannot skip over the need to rebuild and maintain the revolutionary current, train cadre, and build consciously revolutionary organizations.
In contrast to the third trend, we do not believe that having and projecting firm revolutionary politics is in itself sufficient to our task. We have to have a perspective that connects revolutionaries organically with emerging struggles in all of their contradictions, and limits, and wins people to a project.
This entails a posture of non-sectarianism appropriate to our size and modesty (not about our goal or our militancy) but about the gap between the small numbers of revolutionaries and our task; and the recognition that, in terms of the existing revolutionary Left, there is not now a basis for getting everyone in a room together to talk about founding a new organization, though there is likely space for joint work on abortion rights, the environment, labor solidarity, and so on, that provides a basis to build upon.
For those who embrace this fourth approach to revolutionary politics, I would highlight five critical tasks. These should be seen as immediate tasks for Tempest:
- Educate and cohere revolutionary cadre.
- Maintain and build socialist media that can sharply engage in propagandistic, agitational, and organizational efforts.
- Embed ourselves in areas of struggle—and likely struggle.
- Maintain flexibility to respond quickly to both evolving and episodic struggles, in the context of the compound crises we face.
- Build and rebuild both revolutionary organization and broader formations in which revolutionaries are strategically implanted.
This is a different political horizon than one which looks to bring in the “ones and twos”, on the basis of abstract agreement on a set of politics, and train them to participate in organizational reproduction. Rather this is about winning layers of people to both participation in the building of revolutionary organization and participation in the emergent centers of struggle.
Featured image credit: Brett Morison via Flickr. Modified by Tempest.
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Aaron Amaral View All
Aaron Amaral is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Tempest Collective, and on the editorial board of New Politics.