It has been a while since the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) has shown up on my radar screen. When Stan Goff was a member, I paid a lot more attention to it since I had a high regard for Stan. When he dropped out with an open letter disavowing Marxism, I pretty much lost interest.
I should add that there are actually two FRSO’s. The one that Stan was involved with is referred to as Freedom Road Socialist Organization (Refoundation) while the other FRSO is called “Fightback”. Neither group uses the qualifier in referring to itself. The split occurred in 1999 over the “refoundation” business that appeared to overlap to some extent with broader moves to break with sectarianism on the left. With all proportions guarded, the split is reminiscent of the split in the CPUSA with the Committees of Correspondence offering up its own kind of “refoundation” thinking and the Gus Hall faction upholding “orthodoxy”, as laughable as that seems to someone outside their ranks.
The Fightback group sized up the split this way:
Under the banner of building a “new socialist party” a right wing section of our organization adopted the standpoint of social-democracy and anti-communism, and insisted that FRSO pursue this strategy. In an exercise of sectarianism, the rightists said there was no socialist movement that met their criteria of what a revolutionary movement should be (either in the U.S. or internationally) so it was their task to “refound it”. They said that Marxism-Leninism was a failure, as well as an obstacle to building socialism, and that a “new revolutionary theory” was needed. They convened a meeting to solidify their strategy to build an organization that corresponds to their thinking over the next 5 years.
More recently, the “Refoundation” group has oriented itself to the Bolivarian revolution:
From this FRSO sharpened the vision of Left Refoundation. Drawing on the analysis of Latin American socialist and political thinker, Marta Harnecker, FRSO has said it must be based on the fusion of forces from both the Party Left (socialist organizations) and the Social Movement Left (mass-based groups in different sectors with left politics and a core open to socialism). Two pamphlets were written with these new sights and widely circulated: “Which Way is Left” and “The Young and the Leftless” (aimed at younger activists). Both make the call for a broad party-building project on the left which required a reassessment of long-established organizational models, theory and practice. These pamphlets, coupled with participation in local social forums and the USSF, locally-based cross-left forms, and being a founding organization of Revolutionary Work in Our Times has stirred interest in a new generation of revolutionaries based in the social movements.
While I am generally sympathetic to their approach, a post that appeared recently on the Kasama website gives me pause to wonder. A fellow named Patrick Ryan who had left the group after 2 years decided that the FRSO (from this point on, you can assume that I am referring to the “Refoundation” group) was just too mired in the Democratic Party and wrote a resignation letter that Kasama published. Ryan states:
The leadership of FRSO/OSCL [ie., Refoundation] has played pivotal roles in social-democratic organizations like Progressives for Obama, the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988, and aligned itself with like minded groups such as Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, the Democratic Socialists, and the Communist Party, USA in mass work which is dominated ideologically by a line of “Added-Value” Social-Democracy.
Frankly, it is a little difficult to find the kind of cheerleading for Obama on the FRSO website that you see on the CPUSA’s. Since FRSO members tend not to identify themselves publicly as such (a Maoist tradition that differs sharply from the Trotskyists), it is hard to assess the role of FRSO in the altogether regrettable Progressives for Obama, a website initiated by Carl Davidson, a student leader of the 1960s who is now a co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence, a group just as comfortably wedded to the Democratic Party as the CPUSA from which it split.
Just to refresh my memory, I took a look at Progressives for Obama (which has rebranded itself as Progressive America Rising, perhaps to put some distance between itself and the permanently rightward lurching White House) to see what they had to say about Obama during the early flush of illusion in this reincarnation of Herbert Hoover.
Davidson saw fit to publish Robert Borosage’s encomium to Obama a few days after the inauguration:
Obama’s inaugural speech was a pointed critique of the “failed dogmas” of the last 30 years of conservative misrule and a summons to a new and bold, progressive era of activist government; regulated markets and shared prosperity at home; and a foreign policy that reflects our values…
It was not the words, but this transcendent reality that evoked the tears at Barack Obama’s inauguration Tuesday. The somber eloquence of the new president, the presence of over a million people celebrating what they had done, the grace of Michele and Barack together, the infectious delight of their daughters, the relief felt in the long overdue departure of Bush and Cheney—all were overshadowed by the historic reality of Americans electing the first African-American president to lead them in this time of trouble. We see one another and the world sees America with new eyes as a result.
Now it is understandable why a Nation Magazine liberal like Borosage would write such nonsense. The bigger problem for us is why so many self-declared socialists like Davidson would believe it. The words “shared prosperity at home” ring particularly hollow.
The FRSO’s orientation to the Democratic Party, mostly gleaned from reading between the lines of their various articles and statements, is a legacy of one branch of the Maoist “New Communist” movement that Max Elbaum documented in “Revolution in the Air”.
While most 60s New Leftists started out as fierce opponents of the Democratic Party in the aftermath of the escalation of the war in Vietnam, there was a shift back to the oldest party of the American ruling class when the New Left began to dissolve under the impact of the French revolt of May/June 1968. All of a sudden, classical Marxism and a proletarian orientation became de rigeur.
For many New Leftists who had grown to despise the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (for both good and bad reasons), the alternative model would become the Chinese Communist Party. But in terms of our own history in the USA, this peasant-based revolution would not be so easy to import. So instead young radicals began to look to the Communist Party despite its flaws.
In one of the oddest overtures ever made to the party of Gus Hall a group called Line of March led by ex-CP’er Irwin Silber, who used to write film reviews for the now defunct Guardian newsweekly, wrote article after article lashing out at the CP in one paragraph while writing obsequiously in the next–all this in the context of fusion proposals that the much larger CP found all too easy to ignore.
Unlike the CPUSA, the Maoists were not a wing of the Democratic Party but chose instead to participate in campaigns that had more of a maverick quality, especially those with African-American candidates. When I was in CISPES in New York City, we had a hard-working and well-respected member of the Maoist Communist Workers Party who had a day job on State Senator Bill Perkin’s staff. When CISPES had a national conference in 1984 that adopted a resolution becoming part of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, the DWP’er persuaded many people to jump on board.
Despite FRSO/Fightback’s opposition to FRSO/Refoundation’s “revisionism”, it shared its orientation to the Jackson campaign:
In the 1980s, we campaigned for Jesse Jackson and Chicago’s mayor Harold Washington while working to build the Black liberation movement and the struggle for African American political power. Our members were on the union picket lines when Hormel meatpackers faced the National Guard. We built opposition to Bush Sr.’s first war on Iraq and organized countless protests and demonstrations of every war of every administration – from Reagan to Bush, Jr. In the 1990’s and this last five years, we participated in thousands of battles on the local and national level. High points include building the Chicano and Latino movements against the government’s anti-immigrant measures in California, the powerful struggles of the urban poor in Minnesota and the Teamster reform movement.
Of course, it should be acknowledged that not all Maoists go along with this. Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party was never on the Obama bandwagon. He wrote a letter to his followers stating:
Besides the need to sharply expose how Obama, and others parroting this stuff, are attempting to draw Black people into being consciously complicit in the crimes of “their country”—i.e., U.S. imperialism—against the oppressed masses of the world,6 it needs to be recognized and pointed out that these syrupy bromides being given voice by Obama, and by many bourgeois Black figures, on the basis of Obama’s winning the presidential race, not only make the ground more favorable for, but can very quickly turn into, the menace voiced by William Bennett as things unfold, as this system continues to operate according to its essential nature and underlying dynamics, including—as we have stressed in the special issue on the Black national question7 —the ways in which it functions, and is bound to function, to keep masses of Black people, in particular youth in the inner cities, from “being whatever they strive to be,” and these youth and other basic Black masses are increasingly seen, and treated, by many of these Black bourgeois forces as dragging them down and posing an obstacle to their being what they are striving to be—more prominent functionaries and lackeys of the imperialist system.
Despite having very little use for cult leaders of any sort, Avakian’s words strike me as quite persuasive.
To conclude, it is beyond the scope of this article to deal with all of the complexities of Marxism and electoral politics, but there are some points that can be made.
1. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels co-wrote an Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League March 1850 that stated:
“Even where there is no prospect whatever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be bribed by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and giving the reactionaries the possibility of victory.”
You’ll notice that the “democratic party” is in lower case but it can be in upper case if applied to the American scene ever since Ralph Nader decided to challenge the two-party system.
In Marx’s day, it was simply understood that workers should vote for socialist candidates. Some Marxist supporters of the Democratic Party bring up Karl Marx’s fervent support for Abraham Lincoln. One can only say that this was an exceptional moment in American history when a section of the ruling class decided to complete the bourgeois revolution. By 1873, the two parties had coalesced around opposition to socialism and support for Jim Crow so any attempts to extrapolate Marx’s civil war writings to the modern imperialist epoch are self-serving to say the least.
2. Lenin advocated support for bourgeois workers parties like the German Social Democracy and the British Labour Party as a tactic to gain a hearing among workers who had not yet become supporters of the CP. Critical to this tactic was the understanding that once such parties came to power, they would expose themselves as traitors to the people who voted for them. How this has anything to do with the Democratic Party, a bourgeois party plain and simple, is anybody’s guess. This is a party that has been around since the early 19th century. Those who have not wised up about its goals are not going to be persuaded one way or another by having Obama in the White House. People vote for the Democrats mostly because they see no alternative. But the left has no business accommodating itself to the prevailing mood of futility in American society. We should be building bridges that lead to an alternative, starting with campaigns like Nader-Camejo. It is doubtful that Nader will mount another campaign but we should be thinking about a serious challenge to the single party running this country today, the party of big business that has two factions bickering over how to best screw the American people.