I want to thank the comrades from Left Voice for opening up what I hope is a productive space at the conference for this discussion and debate. While the debate generally is framed as one around how revolutionaries relate to reformist organizations–and I will reach these issues–there are a series of related points I want to make to frame this discussion.
First, we should emphasize that this is a strategic debate. One of the things that means is that there are goals we share in common. What we are debating is how we get there. So the two groups agree about a number of things, some of which include that the system of capitalism is not going to be overcome by simply using the machinery of the existing capitalist state. Also, we agree that revolutionary breakthroughs internationally will be an absolute necessity to overcome the power of capital and to begin to truly construct a socialist society.
Such breakthroughs will not happen gradually through reforms won through the profoundly undemocratic system of governance which are the norm in capitalist democracies. Revolutionary breakthroughs require revolutionary organization. While I think that any revolutionary process that leads to a socialist transformation is almost certainly going to require revolutionary organizations, plural, when we talk about the revolutionary party what we are talking about is the vehicle for the leading layer, the so-called vanguard layer of fighters: militants of the working class and communities of the oppressed who will lead the fight for working class self-emancipation and–to paraphrase Marx and Engels-to construct a “real movement that abolishes the present state of things.”
I will come back to this issue of the working class vanguard and the revolutionary process, but it is important to state up front some points of agreement. The debate here is how we are fighting to achieve these ends.
The “live wound” of organization
To talk about how we get there requires a brutally honest assessment of where we are NOW. In the U.S. context, in a country of over 330 million people, the number of people who share the starting point laid out above, the starting point which motivates this debate, is miniscule. There are very generously maybe 5000 comrades in the US who share the perspective of revolutionary Marxism and are somewhat organized and somewhat politically active (in organizations and movements). Admittedly, I am making up this number based on my thirty years in the organized revolutionary socialist Left but even if that number is ten times as large, even 50,000 would represent about 2/100ths of one percent of the whole population. We are tiny.
This observation is not meant to be disheartening, but rather is meant to situate where we are starting from today.
Of even greater significance is the question of the current state of the leading layer of the working class and oppressed–the so-called vanguard. And this question is not only one of size, but also of consciousness and confidence. British revolutionary socialist Duncan Hallas, as early as 1971, in an article entitled, “Towards a Revolutionary Party” wrote:
The events of the last 40 years largely isolated the revolutionary socialist tradition from the working classes of the West. The first problem is to reintegrate them…In human terms, an organised layer of thousands of workers, by hand and by brain, firmly rooted amongst their fellow workers and with a shared consciousness of the necessity for socialism and the way to achieve it, has to be created. Or rather it has to be recreated. For such a layer existed in the twenties in Britain and internationally. Its disintegration, initially by Stalinism and then by the complex interactions of Stalinism, Fascism and neo-reformism, reduced the authentic socialist tradition in the advanced capitalist countries to the status of a fringe belief. As it re-emerges from that status, old disputes take on new life.
The socialist movement in this country has not always been an outside, negligible force. For decades of the last century it was an integral part of working class communities, politics and struggle. It was the force which built the labor movement, which later helped support and sustain civil rights struggles, which ensured that the ruling class’s concessions of the New Deal era had to be made, and which opposed decades of bipartisan imperial policies. It was a relentless internationalism, and principled opposition to all forms of oppression, that made these and other victories possible.
The coerced separation of our movement from our class is a wound from the middle of the last century; yet it is a live wound, which makes itself felt broadly in our organizing and in our personal lives. We have been reminded of this wound as long as we can remember; every time we were forced to pledge allegiance to the imperial flag in our classrooms or in our union halls. We will not win lasting reforms, let alone the defeat of capitalism, until this damage is fully repaired.
This, then, is the framework from which we enter this debate and which undergirds how we understand our project, how we need to think about building organization, and whether and how we relate to broader reformist forces.
On participation in broad parties: roots of this debate
The roots of this debate began with a polemical piece from LV comrade Nathanial Flakin in December 2022 entitled, “Broad Left Parties are a dead-end” and surprisingly (at least to us at the time) subtitled, a debate with Tempest, Flakin radically misrepresents our position by way of seemingly arguing that revolutionaries should not participate in broader left formations. I encourage comrades to read both Flakin’s original piece and Andy Sernatinger’s response on behalf of Tempest on January 5, 2023.
Whether purposefully or not – it does not really matter – this reads not as a strategic debate (about DSA, Syriza, Podemos, etc.) but rather as a principled argument that revolutionary socialists should never be part of broader left formations. I will say something more in a minute about DSA (and will leave the longer assessments of Syriza, Podemos, The Brazilian Workers Party, and the Argentine FIT-U to the discussion). However, there are three mistakes I will point to before returning to the question of DSA.
First, Flakin misrepresents or fudges Tempest’s position on broad parties, as we have argued it elsewhere and as we have put it in practice, mainly in DSA. Our position is consistent with almost the entire history of the practice of revolutionary Marxism going back to Marx and Engels themselves. It is especially relevant to the present circumstances (i.e. our small numbers and the relative strength of the working class vanguard). We will work with forces to our right in movements, in electoral formations, and even in the same organization – when and where that makes sense, so long as that work is in the service of the broader struggle for socialist emancipation.
The decisions as to when and where that makes sense is always a strategic decision based on specific and concrete assessment of the state of the movement, the forces involved, and so on. Yet, we believe and strongly defend the idea and practice of revolutionaries maintaining our own organizations (in whatever form) and our own methods for presenting explicitly revolutionary ideas, perspectives, and strategies in this work.
In misrepresenting this position, Flakin is really engaged in a rhetorical trick: using a caricature of an opponent’s position simply as a vehicle to assert your own (the “straw person fallacy”). Jamaican-born British Marxist Stuart Hall wrote an essay in 1983 that is very much worth reading, “For a Marxism without Guarantees.” Hall’s argument is directed at the sterility of the Stalinist left of the 1980s. It is apropos here and he warns:
Frequently what is so disabling about the work of some marxist writers is that you know what is going to be said at the end before the investigation has begun, that the questions are phoney, that such writers are functioning on a closed terrain.
Third, Flakin runs through the experience of the revolutionaries in a variety of reformist organizations, including Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and the DSA in the U.S. while then counter-posing the Argentine Workers Left Front (FIT) as a strategic alternative. But Flakin specifically points to the end of the political process and dynamic, in which the reformist leadership of these organizations inevitably—wait for it—pursues reformist paths and fails to pursue the paths proposed by Revolutionaries. Shocking! Flain seems to conclude that the fact of the defeats proves the strategic mistake of revolutionaries engaging with these formations for a time as members of these organizations.
Here there is an incredibly important lesson that many Marxists have pointed out: that this fight for socialism is marked by a series of defeats, and lessons from those defeats, until such a time as we actually win. To look at these efforts and reduce the experiences to the fact of their defeat is a travesty of a Marxist approach. I will quote another British Marxist, Richard Seymour, who wrote,
The history of the left is a history of defeats; it is a history of the vanquished. We gain our victories out of a dialectic of defeats—from the crushing of the Paris Commune to the birth of mass socialist parties; from the horror of 1914 to the electrifying revolution of 1917.
Understand, there is much to criticize and learn from in every one of the recent so-called broad party efforts. But they need to be understood in their specificity.
With regard to DSA, I am going to quote from a piece by Comrade Natalia Tylim entitled The Blush is Off the Rose from July 2023:
What was significant about this rise in membership in DSA was not purely numerical. Rather, it presented a particular window of political opportunity in which millions of people were in search of a break with politics as usual. Tempest maintains that it is correct for revolutionaries to be part of broader organizations while those windows exist. The whole point of politics and organization is to put them to work and make an impact. Of course, having a clear and core set of politics is necessary to build around in any revolutionary organization, but these politics can be strengthened and can convince previously unswayed activists when they are applied in the course of struggle and discussion.
Tempest members maintain that participating in DSA and trying to take advantage of the opportunities that existed for the Left was the right thing to do. This remains the right orientation given the weakness of the revolutionary Left and the obstacle of the U.S. two-party system. But part of that orientation means understanding that those spaces are only windows of opportunity. Like all questions of organizational form and orientation, these aren’t questions of principle, but of concrete political moments. New political moments provide new possibilities. Revolutionaries have the chance to make our politics more broadly heard, understood, and implemented—but only if we remain open and ready to bring our politics with us into broader political spaces.
The U.S. socialist movement needs broad organizations, and revolutionaries need organization, as well.
There are two related points about political perspectives and organizational form that should be made here. First, central to the Tempest project and our approach is taking very seriously the crisis of the revolutionary Left of the last generation. In country after country since the global economic crisis of 2008, the organizations of the revolutionary Left have failed and often collapsed not in the face of defeat and retreat—(in fact, many survived and thrived during the years of rising and triumphalist neoliberalism.) Rather, the failure and collapse took place precisely in the face of the incredible opportunity and generational radicalization that marked the post-2008 period. We must take care in how we answer these questions: how we relate to forces to our right, what are our perspectives on our own overall capacities and roles.
Creating tiny organizations that mistake the Leninist organizational form with the need for exaggerated degrees of ideological uniformity and the prime imperative of organizational reproduction has proven to be not fit to purpose. That approach may have the ability to recruit in the ones and twos, and organizations working on that basis may grow to a certain size and influence. But in their brittleness and their revolving doors of membership, they have proven incapable of meeting such moments of opportunity. And let me be 100 percent clear here: This is not about one organization, in one country, but about the experience of the revolutionary Left internationally over the last decade.
The second point I will make is a provocation to the whole of the Trotskyist tradition from which most of us come. In 1938, at the precipice of World War II, Trotsky wrote in the founding program of the Fourth International: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”
There may be an argument, though I am not necessarily convinced, that such a position made sense in 1938. However, this idea today can be poisonous to our approach. It risks skipping over the whole question of the level and degree of disorganization and depoliticization of the working class as a whole. It risks skipping over the weak state or absence of the working class vanguard in the advanced capitalist countries. When taken together with the incredibly small size of the existing revolutionary Left and our limited influence, we run an incredible risk of misreading our moment and defining our task as simply asserting leadership over the existing (or non-existing) working class vanguard.
As David McNally points out, a micro-party model arises when a small organization of dozens or hundreds starts to behave as if it can act as the political leadership of the organized vanguard of the working class. This model is one in which a small, politically isolated group pretends to be the organized vanguard of the working class (perhaps in waiting for the masses). This substitution creates a fundamentally false perspective that exaggerates what the small group is and deceives the small group as to what its tasks ought to be.
So I will conclude on the question of our tasks at this moment from the position of the Tempest Collective. This is taken from our last Convention in 2021:
While necessary, we do not believe that having and projecting firm revolutionary politics is in itself sufficient to our task. We must have a perspective that connects revolutionaries organically with emerging struggles in all of their contradictions and limits and wins people to a project.
This perspective 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. We recognize 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. However, there is likely space for joint work on abortion rights, the environment, labor solidarity, and so on that might provide a basis to build upon.
In this process, there are five critical and immediate tasks.
- Educate and consolidate revolutionary cadre.
- Maintain and build socialist media that can engage sharply in propagandistic, agitational, and organizational efforts.
- Embed ourselves in areas of live and imminent struggle.
- Maintain flexibility to respond quickly to both evolving and episodic struggle, 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 process is about winning layers of people to both participation in the building of revolutionary organization and participation in the emergent centers of struggle.
We are grateful for the opportunity to have this debate and look forward to working with Left Voice and the rest of the Left in the critical struggles in front of us. It is a process which will no doubt further clarify our thinking and our perspectives.
Featured image credit: Picryl; modified by Tempest.
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Aaron Amaral is a member of the Tempest Collective and serves on the editorial board of New Politics.