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Building a Mass Socialist Party

The response to Bernie showed that a socialist party in the United States is possible. But there is no shortcut to building power.

A Neighborhoods Organizing for Change conference addressed by Bernie Sanders in Minneapolis, MN on February 12, 2016. ,Tony Webster / Flickr

We desperately need a mass socialist party. But the dictum “build it and they will come” won’t get us very far. Such a party has preconditions. It demands grounding in dramatic and sustained uptakes in the level of popular struggles and, above all, the generalization of institutionalized, vibrant bases of working-class support.

Yet after the multi-decade defeat of the labor movement, it’s precisely such bases of deep support that are so conspicuously absent. External factors like another economic crisis, even if it leads to a powerful political backlash, will not magically generate this foundation. Nor will it come about through some spontaneous dynamic internal to unions.

In the current moment, the creation of such a working-class base has its own preconditions. A central one — bringing our dilemma full circle — is a significant socialist presence in the working class. We consequently face a seemingly irresolvable impasse: no party without a base, no base without a party. Is there a way out of this closed circle?

The Great Defeat: Neoliberalism

A renewed bout of labor militancy, as essential and welcome as that would be, will not escape this impasse. A crucial lesson of the 1960s, the last decade in which the working class seemed ascendant, was that it was the failure of the labor movement to go beyond militancy that set the stage for the defeats that still haunt us.

As the postwar boom faded in the second half of the 1960s, corporations first stumbled towards reviving profits and growth then, by the end of the 1970s, capitalist elites reached a crucial consensus. There was a new world out there and options within it were polarized. The middle road of the welfare state was no longer a workable alternative; it got in the way of the profitable restructuring of the economy. It was consequently essential to put a brake on, and ultimately reverse, the advances made by workers. Only more capitalism — that is, an orientation to more deeply subordinating both the private and the social to capitalist discipline — could restore the trajectory of domestic and global accumulation.

Capital grasped the political implications of this new moment, but labor did not. With some exceptions, unions expected (or hoped) that this was a temporary setback that would end once the economy turned up or the political winds reversed. Nor did workplace militancy bring any larger counter-challenge from the Left. No call for capital controls, no talk of converting the private financial system into a public utility, no consideration of the necessity of economic planning to offset dependence on private investment decisions based on private priorities. The rising unemployment that accompanied the crisis weakened labor and with labor having no independent alternative of its own, the capitalist options readily won the day, weakening labor further. Absent any agenda beyond militancy, the working class was defeated and neoliberalism — which Adolph Reed succinctly defined as “capitalism without a labor opposition” — was born.

Among other things, neoliberalism radically shifted the foundation for capitalism’s legitimacy from essentially buying workers off to simply asserting “there is no alternative.” Neoliberal capitalism was the only capitalism on offer and if you didn’t like it, too bad.

Without a mass socialist movement demonstrating otherwise it was, not surprisingly, very hard to hang on to other possibilities. Social democracy was hardly an alternative. In Canada, it was long past identifying socialism as a reference point and pretty much accepted and adapted to this “new reality.” Like the Democratic Party in the United States, it offered little more than a vague promise of a “kinder” neoliberalism.

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The radical left, for its part, tended to underestimate neoliberalism’s staying power, arguing that it wasn’t viable either economically or politically and that the eventual rebellions against it would create the conditions for a new politics. The Left, already weak by then, was for the most part reduced to bearing witness. The outcome not only lowered the ambitious expectations of the postwar period; it also left unions increasingly incapable of even carrying out defensive battles. Even for those kinds of battles, it seemed that a larger, socialist-influenced orientation was essential.

Like the limited promises of militancy, neither the frustrations of the years that followed, nor the growing understanding that neoliberalism was a class project favoring corporations and the rich, led to getting radical alternatives on the agenda. By the end of the eighties, few disagreed with Leonard Cohen’s laconic declaration that “Everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost.” They nodded in passive agreement as Cohen intoned that “Everybody knows the boat is leaking, everybody knows the captain lied.” But knowing you’d been had did not necessarily lead to rebellion. In the continuing absence of the independent structures necessary for confident struggle, the “there-is-no alternative” hymn carried the day.

When the great financial crisis hit in 2007, it seemed that a profound reaction from below would finally come. The legitimacy of bankers, financiers, corporate elites more generally, state institutions, and political parties took a severe beating.

Yet once again there were no political explosions, no new signs of a robust base for a new politics. As significant as the discrediting of establishment institutions was, on its own that was not enough. Occupy, to its credit, showed that a crude class analysis could touch a popular nerve and that radical actions could similarly elicit public sympathy. But without a strategy to broaden its base and (especially) move workers to occupy spaces that were more than symbolic — factories, schools, government buildings — the Occupy movement too faded.

Sanders and Left Social Democracy

Then suddenly and remarkably, after the expected didn’t happen the unexpected did. The stunning success of the Bernie Sanders campaign was predicted by almost no-one, including on the radical left itself. For the first time in almost seven decades, the possibility of a mass socialist party that extended beyond the usual suspects suddenly seemed an actual possibility in the United States and, by extension, in Canada as well.

The Sanders phenomenon not only caught the Left by surprise; it also went against the grain of the socialist left’s traditional warning that nothing could come from running under the banner of the Democratic Party. After all, it had been the Democrats under Carter that first initiated the neoliberal period and in sixteen of the last twenty-four years the Democrats had been in office implementing neoliberal policies.

Ignoring that counsel, the Sanders campaign brought tens of thousands of young activists to formal politics — a truly historic shift for so many in the social movements. It drew wide support from rank-and-file union members excited about a candidate that they could support as more than the lesser of two evils (even as most trade-union leaders, concerned with Sanders’s radicalism and electability, observed that enthusiasm with nervous eyes). The campaign put forth a broad social-democratic program on inequality, regulating Wall Street, health care, education, housing, and jobs and expanded the political discourse to include the categories of class, power, and democratic socialism. It even demonstrated that money was not a definitive barrier to an electoral challenge.

When Sanders lost to Clinton this reinforced the arguments of those claiming it was long past time to give up on the Democratic Party and move on to build a socialist party. Trump’s march through the Republican primaries to victory and then on to the presidency reinforced the urgency of creating a new party of the Left.

But there were limits to the politics inspired by the Sanders phenomenon and any consideration of forming a mass socialist party can’t ignore them.

To begin with, Sanders rose through an established party. Though political parties have suffered a profound degree of delegitimation, this has not sidelined them; their continuing economic and social impact ensure their continuing relevance. That they were nevertheless weakened gave individuals like Sanders who were not tainted with being part of the party establishment the advantage of operating inside these parties while retaining their branding as outsiders (this was also true of Corbyn in the Labour Party and Trump re the Republicans).

Had Sanders run as an independent, without the on-the-ground resources of the Democratic machine and the profile of running as a Democrat, it was highly unlikely — as he well knew — that his campaign would have had anywhere near the impact it did, just as attempts to form a left party outside the British Labour Party have generally and quickly faded. For all the discrediting of political parties, party politics remains a central site for being taken seriously. Starting a new party from scratch is something else and presents formidable difficulties.

A second and ultimately more fundamental problem was that for all the achievements of the Sanders campaign, it was in crucial respects organizationally thin, as evident by how quickly it seemed to disappear when it formally folded and how difficult it now is to revive it. The deep organizing capacity and institutional building fundamental to a sustained challenge to capitalist power was simply not built prior to the campaign or during it. The point is not that elections are to be rejected as a site of struggle, but that they derive their importance from expressing an already existing developed social base.

What was different about the Sanders moment was not frustrations suddenly boiling over; they had reached their boiling point long before. Nor was it the sudden discovery on the part of activists of the limits of protest. Rather it was that Sanders seemed to offer a practical vehicle for changing things in the here and now, through a political process (the US primary) that wasn’t destined to marginalization, that included progressive programmatic principles, was led by someone with an exceptional aura of authenticity, and demanded limited — if still significant — life commitments. So while it was an unambiguous step up, the Sanders moment, like other protest moments, was still primarily a shortcut to radical politics.

A third issue concerns the economic-political context. If neoliberalism is understood as not simply a reversible policy choice but also a state response to a pressing crisis that had polarized options and effectively cancelled the viability of any middle ground, then certain implications follow. Any attempt to return to the policies of the welfare state would — given the institutional changes that have occurred since (globalization, financialization, industrial restructuring, regional shifts and so on) — now necessitate a much more sweeping set of state interventions in private property rights.

And this, in turn, would only be conceivable alongside a radical transformation in social power and a party organized around developing the deep individual, collective, and institutional capacities to accomplish this. Railing against neoliberalism or even well-meaning policy pronouncements, on their own, can’t help but lead to the kind of disillusionments that in the past opened the door to the Right, as we saw in the aftermath of the Rae election in Ontario (Harris) and in the aftermath of the disappointments with Obama (Trump).

Had Sanders won without a base for going further, we’d have gloried in the initial euphoria but, as Leo Panitch has asked, “then what?” Might the subsequent defeat of a prematurely elected Sanders have devastated left hopes for another generation?

None of this is intended to negate the importance of the Sanders campaign. History doesn’t move in straight lines and the positive legacies of the Sanders moment, which people are struggling to hang on to through Our Revolution, may re-emerge as a social force. What needs confronting is that while this experiment may have revealed potentials, it and the kind of politics it seems to have inspired do not provide adequate answers to dealing with capitalism in our time.

The lesson isn’t that the movement came close and only needs to try harder next time. It is that it needs, in organizational terms, to try differently.

Building Capacity

What distinguishes an explicitly socialist project? The answer is straightforward. While left social democracy, for all its anticapitalist rhetoric, is oriented to ending neoliberalism, socialism is — in its vision, structures and practices — oriented to ending capitalism. The corollary is that the core of the socialist project is about alternative politics, not just alternative policies — on developing the skills and institutional capacities to address the extraordinary power and resiliency of capitalism. Socialism’s preoccupation with “capacities” is perhaps its most significant contribution to addressing social change.

The vision underlying socialism is a society structured to support the full and mutual development of each of our potential capacities to actively do and enjoy. It is a society structured to support democracy in the deepest sense of maximizing the potential capacity (kratos) of the people (demos) to rule themselves. The critique of capitalism flows directly from this: the issue isn’t reducing the level of exploitation but ending the undemocratic fact of some controlling the labor power — the creative capacity — of others and determining how that potential is advanced, distorted, or crushed.

The defining strategic concern that follows is to develop the capacities to build a new world: the capacity to envision possibilities, to analyze, evaluate, strategize, interact democratically within our own structures, organize, and act.

But like the left social-democratic alternative, the socialist one brings its own contradictions and dilemmas.

For one, the normal functioning of a capitalist society tends to undermine and deform the capacities fundamental to taking on the socialist project. Is it credible that people whose dreams have been so narrowed by their experiences under capitalism, for whom survival enforces an immediacy that undercuts a long-term perspective, whose everyday reality is dependence on bosses, whose formation into a cohesive class is discouraged by not only issues of race, ethnicity, gender, etc but by competition and wide gaps in wages and conditions — that people shaped and affected in such ways by capitalism — will buy into and sustain a project beyond capitalism?

A second daunting dilemma revolves around what we are really saying to people when we are being honest, and whether this can have much currency in recruiting them to our cause. Socialism, we admit, will take an indefinitely long time, very likely beyond our own mortality. It will undoubtedly demand great sacrifices and we can’t really guarantee that it is ultimately possible. And no, we don’t have examples to show you. It is difficult to see this having much appeal unless people are already socialists.

We should therefore have no illusions. Any initiative for a new socialist party would likely remain small for some time and as a result limited in what it has to offer. This of course brings further disadvantages, leaving socialists with an exasperating choice. On the one hand, a leftish version of social-democratic party that is more likely to develop a broad base and even get elected down the road, but unlikely to meet the expectations it gave rise to. On the other, a more rigorous and ultimately valid socialist orientation, but one that would be extremely difficult to get off the ground. Is there room for some conciliation between the two?

It goes without saying that a degree of co-operation should be attempted. But this is not comparable to co-operating with specific movements. It’s one thing to work in movements and unions that see themselves as representing a particular issue or subgroup, and quite another to co-operate with a contesting political organization. In union/movement work, the role of socialists is to support their allies’ priorities and democratically encourage them, over time, towards a more socialist perspective.

But cooperation between political institutions is much more tension-laden; it involves political competitors in conflict over the strategic ways forward. These differences are profound, often involving disagreements on the dynamics of capitalism and its current strength, diverging assessments of where people are at and how they change, the weight given to electoral involvements, and conflicting understandings of what it means to “govern” and cope with the transformation of the capitalist state.

While the conceptual distinctions between a left social-democratic orientation and a socialist one are clear, in practical circumstances they may become blurred. For example, the most significant attempt since the end of the 1940s to form a mass party of the Left, and one that unfortunately remains very much under-studied, was that of the US Labor Party in the mid-90s. It included socialists in key leadership positions and the base it focused on was primarily the working class.

Nonetheless, its policies were basically those of traditional social democracy. And on the question of moving quickly on to national electoral challenges, even socialists within the party were split between those who believed “getting on the map” was essential and those who saw this as premature and a trap diverting concentration on building the base. In retrospect, what seemed to undo the US Labor Party was the pragmatic gravitation at election time of workers and unions to the Democrats to block a Republican victory likely to more aggressively undermine an already marginalized unionism, critically starving the party of more resources.

The example of the US Labor Party underscores tricky questions for socialists operating within such a party. How much of an emphasis should be put on socialist education in the early stages of such a party? Where and when does the development of specifically socialist cadre, as opposed to progressive organizers and campaigners, occur? Should workers be recruited to a socialist caucus within the larger organization? Would this undermine the party’s internal unity? Would such activities and debates, which inevitably spill into the public domain, isolate the party?

In any case, the Trump victory has reminded us how politically fluid the current world is. To the extent to which we have not yet sorted out the meaning of Trump’s victory, it is rather speculative to discuss future stages of our still-not-existing movement.

What we can say, however, is that putting socialism on the back burner in the ‘short term’ and waiting for its longer-term cue to arrive will virtually guarantee that we will wait forever. The point is not just that the short term can shape and even dominate the long term; it’s that whatever other progressive initiatives emerge, it is absolutely fundamental that there be an independent, organized socialist presence expressing socialist concerns and strategies.

So what could socialists do now in regards to the party question?

Stress Test: Building a Socialist Current

At the end of the 1980s, Bernie Sanders surveyed the state of political affairs in the United States and asserted that “it is absolutely imperative that the progressive movement raise the issues and the analyses which will educate the people of our nation to begin to understand what the hell is going on.” Crucially, he added that “I honestly don’t believe that that can take place within the Democratic Party.” That unambiguous rejection of illusions about the Democratic Party in the United States (and correspondingly, the social-democratic “dead parrot” that is Canada’s New Democratic Party) is the starting point of a socialist strategy. 

To say this is to acknowledge that in spite of the many lessons we might draw on, and the latest Sanders inspiration, we are virtually starting over.

There are no blueprints to pull off the shelf, no models to comfortably point to, no social base chomping at the bit for the long road to an uncertain somewhere else. Even in the case of those unions that broke with their labor peers and supported Sanders, it is quite another thing to take the next step and completely break with the Democratic Party. Nor is it just a matter of the how and when of getting such a party started. The more fundamental question of what kind of party we are actually talking about remains paramount.

What the moment seems to call for is a sober step back and — borrowing from Jane McAlevey — implementation of a “stress test” (McAlevey prefers the term “structure test”). Let’s test ourselves. Do the commitments and capacities exist to establish a loose but relatively coherent socialist current across the country? If this can’t be done, then bravely announcing the formation of a new party won’t go anywhere.

The institutional essence of trying to create such a current/tendency has often been discussed and this familiar ground can be quickly summarized: Based on recruitment from the many activists mobilized by the Sanders campaign (or past socialist legacies in the case of Canada), socialist groupings would be formed in multiple centers. Each would develop a democratic structure, raise funds, and in terms of engagement determine which movements and struggles to prioritize.

The groups would develop an infrastructure for communication, internal discussion/debate, and public forums. They would eventually hire part-time or full-time organizers, make links with other regions, and develop what Greg Albo calls a “political ecology of protest” — that is, frame the protests within a larger political context. Progressive candidates would be supported for a miscellany of local offices to build alliances, develop administrative skills within the movement, and provide a base for local experiments in alternative ways to address economic, environmental, and cultural needs.

Speakers from abroad could be brought in for national tours reporting on related experiments elsewhere. National conferences would be held, common national campaigns chosen to build some practical unity. Debates would naturally evolve over whether the time seems opportune to give birth to a new party with its greater discipline and eventual electoral ambitions, or whether further preliminary steps remain necessary.

Underlying these institutional tasks would be a number of general political tasks. First, constantly hammering capitalism as an undemocratic social system that cannot meet popular needs, cannot meet human potentials, and cannot avoid despoiling the planet. Second, insisting that if we are to do more than complain, we need to build an institutional capacity with some hope of matching capitalism’s power; we need to move to deep organizing. Third, that at this particular moment what is especially crucial is to organize ourselves to make the socialist idea relevant once more — that is, to both create a new generation of intellectual organizers committed to socialism and through popular education contribute to placing socialism on the agenda again. Fourth, active engagement in existing union and movement struggles is elemental.

Absent such engagement we cannot possibly grasp the lay of the land, learn to deal with the inevitability of compromises, expand our base, or act constructively. Within such struggles a key challenge is to overcome the sense that socialist perspectives are distant and impractical ideals and demonstrate that they matter now — that they can contribute in practical terms to developing and carrying out union and movement strategies.

Of special importance here are interventions in a number of debates that have stymied and divided the broad left.

One is the centrality of the working class and unions. Much of the Left reserves its enthusiasm for the social movements while denigrating unions. But if the working class cannot be organized as an exemplary democratic social force, then social transformation is likewise impossible. While social movements are critical to social change, their ability to build the kind of sustained social power that might lead a challenge to capitalism has historically been disappointingly limited. Moreover, social movements remain dependent on the organizational capacities, independent resources and leverage of the working class.

Yet there has always been the question of where unions, with their sectional roles as representatives of particular groups of workers, fit into a struggle beyond capitalism. Today, there is no avoiding the most fundamental questions about the capacity of existing unions to play a role in social transformation. Is union renewal and radicalization possible? And especially critical to the place of a socialist current, is this possible without the intervention of socialists committed to that reinvention of unions?

A related and especially fraught controversy revolves around the relationship between class and identity. The US election has amplified these divisions. It is not news that there are nativist and racist attitudes within the white US working class. But there is a strong case to be made at this point — as more information comes out we can be more definitive — that the deciding factor in the key Midwest states was not the white working class’s enthusiasm for Trump’s xenophobia and misogyny but the built-up anger against an establishment that had for so long ignored their class concerns.

The increase in the numbers that abstained from voting for Clinton (or Trump) far exceeded those who switched to Trump. This does not excuse the apparent toleration of Trump’s racism and sexism but it does mean that the appeal of Trump among white voters should not be exaggerated. Any attempt to fight the expected direction of the Trump presidency can’t start by blaming the white working class for Trump’s victory but must take the frustrations of the white working class seriously and win them to its side.

In this context, class politics is not a stand-in for setting aside the injustices of racism but rather a reminder that that categories abstracted from class — like “white,” “black,” and “Latino” — obscure the imbalances in power internal to each group; that only a class orientation can unify an otherwise fragmented working class; and insisting on class unity implies the committed, active support for full equality within the class. Fighting racism inside the class and in society as a whole is fundamental to building class power.

A third controversy relates to immigration and solidarity. To simply assert the righteousness of fully open borders in the present context of economic insecurity cannot help but elicit a backlash and will ultimately do little for refugees and future immigrants. Workers who have seen their own standards undermined over time without their unions or the government responding to this may have charitable sentiments but they are not going to prioritize open borders.

More can be achieved by trying to win people to a more liberal but regulated border policy, by fighting for full equality of workers once they are here, and by insisting that refugees and new immigrants get the social supports they need to concretize that equality — all of which bring us into solidaristic struggles over union rights and the restoration and expansion of the welfare state.

A fourth tension is that between the urgency of ecological time and the inherently extended epoch of revolutionary time. The environmental crisis demands change now but building the social force capable of bringing about that change — especially as it must mean a degree of democratized economic and social planning that inherently and fundamentally challenges corporate power — can’t help but take time even if should obviously be started now.

A related friction is how to prioritize the environment since planetary survival is at stake without setting aside struggles for social justice. As the environmental crisis worsens, the greatest inequalities will revolve around access to the basics of food, water, and air so the crisis cannot be separated from its impact on inequality and justice. At the same time, unless one thinks that addressing the elite will solve the environmental crisis, the only path to building the social power necessary to transform society and deal with the environment is by way of incorporating issues of inequality and social justice.

Finally, as we turn to the programmatic content of a socialist current we must confront a set of thornier issues lying behind any focus on jobs and public goods and services. Progressive policies on health care, education, housing, public transportation, minimum wages, labor rights, jobs, just environmental transitions, etc. are of course central to building a broad base. But without a further and more radical set of policies that involve fundamental economic interventions such as challenging free trade, private control over investment, and the financial power of banks and investment houses, the social policies simply cannot be sustained.

In fact, in today’s context more radical policies are essential for even achieving moderate reforms. This consideration shifts the emphasis from the terrain of policies to the terrain of power — to an alternative politics rooted in developing the deepest political capacities.

And then there is the US imperial role in the world to be dealt with. It is easy enough to oppose US direct interventions abroad but what of its “normal” spreading and deepening of global capitalism? How do we unravel a world structured around private production networks and global financial flows and do so in a way that doesn’t fall into a chauvinist protectionism? Can we address the internationalism we aspire to and contribute to the development of the Global South if we don’t control our own economy? Can we transfer wealth and technology in the name of international equality without winning equality and a capacity to plan at home? How does all this translate into program and education today?

For Canadian socialists, though we can begin the struggle for a socialist Canada, we could not complete it without restructuring our relationship to the global economy and the United States in particular. This means, above all, that complementary struggles in the United States are crucial to affecting what space we have in Canada for advance. And it means that although breaking out of the American empire may seem a distant goal at this point, this — like other distant questions — demands shaping our current strategies with that necessity always in mind.

The Task Ahead

Objective conditions are always relevant but they will not place socialism on the agenda again. The socialist project rests on what, for many, will seem an uncomfortably high degree of voluntarism. It is too early to read the implications of Trump’s astonishing election on building popular resistance and a socialist politics in the United States as well as in Canada. We can safely assume that the focus of most progressive politics will concentrate on electoral tactics to replace Trump with a rhetorically more populist-inclined Democratic Party.

The socialist left will obviously be a staunch part of the opposition to the Trump regime, but whatever role it plays in protests and at election time, it has another great (and unique) responsibility. The socialist left must find a way to escape the repeated submersion of politics in the swamp of the electoral cycle with its constrained options and its constricted politics.

The task for socialists is to initiate and sustain a determined, systematic drive to build popular new understandings and to develop its own and popular capacities. Without denying the complexities, uncertainties, and difficulties involved, the socialist left must finally — finally — put in motion the tentative steps that might in time make the socialist vision a popular alternative again.

Sam Gindin was research director of the Canadian Auto Workers from 1974–2000 and is now an adjunct professor at York University in Toronto.

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