Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 6, 2012

How Can We Build the Socialist Movement in the 21st Century?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 3:18 pm

Dan DiMaggio

Cultural Logic: An Electronic Journal of Marxist Theory and Practice

Road Maps, Dead Ends, and the Search for Fresh Ground: How Can We Build the Socialist Movement in the 21st Century?

by Dan DiMaggio

“It is easy for good to triumph over evil, if only angels will get organized along the lines of the Mafia.” – Kurt Vonnegut

For the past seven-plus years I have devoted much of my life to effort to build a socialist movement in the United States. As a member of one of the many tiny socialist groups on the U.S. left, I have organized dozens of anti-war, labor solidarity, immigrant rights, and other rallies and campaigns. I have toured the country to speak at college campuses about socialism. I have set up numerous study groups and conferences and written and edited hundreds of articles for socialist publications. Most people might say, “Dan, you’re crazy if you think that socialism can be achieved in a country like the United States!” But despite the challenges, I hope to continue doing this for the next 50 or so years.

Lately, though, I’ve started to wonder just how the &*^$ a viable socialist movement can actually be built in the U.S. I’ve been grappling with this question for much of the last year as I attempt to overcome a funk rooted in my sense that the current organizational forms of the socialist movement, to which I and many others have given so much of our time and energy, are a dead end. Recently it seems like every time I try to raise a finger to help the movement, I am overcome by a crippling sense of the futility of it all.

My paralysis does not stem from pessimism about the possibilities for social change in the U.S. Rather, it is rooted in frustrations with the current methods of organization dominant in the socialist movement, methods which make a difficult task even harder – if not impossible. I can’t shake the feeling that despite our best intentions, we are wasting resources by taking roads that lead to nowhere. It doesn’t help that the main form of organization – tiny, competing groups divided by marginal differences – is out of tune with the content of our aims – “the full material and spiritual liberation of the toilers.” I’ve come to feel that all the heroic effort in the world cannot invest inherently barren forms with meaning.

This piece is my attempt to stimulate critical thinking about the way forward for the U.S. socialist movement. I hope that it will be of interest to practicing socialists as well as other progressive activists, because I think that a healthy, attractive socialist movement can help contribute to the rebuilding of a broader and more powerful left. I realize I am not the first person to say what is written below, and there is much that remains unexplored and unanswered. But I hope it will lead to a productive and collaborative discussion that might open new possibilities for anti-capitalist organizing.

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  1. It’s not so much a dead end as it is a circular road — endless conferences, meetings, meetings about meetings, all to maintain an incredibly slow pace of growth (or rather to keep the number of people coming in slightly higher than the number of people leaving). One thing Dan could have expanded on is that the narrow practice of these groups means that it is literally impossible for anything outside a very narrow range of activities ever has a chance of winning the hearing of a minority, much less majority support.

    Comment by Binh — January 6, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

  2. I agree with the circular comment.

    Keeps going round and round with no end.

    Instead of so many small groups, there should be a mainstream socialist party with a list of specific issues they stand for and a majority that’s in agreement.

    That’s the problem with Occupy. Too many sub groups within the group with too many issues and no focal point.

    Not every member of any group is going to be in complete agreement with every issue they stand for or against.

    But if they can find a majority who stand in agreement with most of the beliefs, then they can build a larger following from there.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — January 6, 2012 @ 10:31 pm

  3. A working person in America today who has developed a healthy anti-capitalist sentiment and knows that our current economic order must be replaced by something entirely different must look at the collection of socialist parties and groups around the U.S. and upon catching one whiff of the insularism, sectarianism, and bickering about obscure points of philosophical theory, semantics and “betrayals,” walk away in disgust. Imagine if capitalists were similarly unorganized — if the existing Republican Party were to splinter into 1,200 groups that wanted nothing to do with each other. If you had irreconcilable “tendencies” within capitalist parties that refused to even talk to each other because forty years ago there was a “split” over the national bank question in early 1800s. The present state of “socialist” organizing in this country is a laughingstock.

    Comment by David — January 7, 2012 @ 1:12 am

  4. The following is an opinion, not an argument, on the question posed by Dan DiMaggio: how can one “build a socialist movement in the United States?”

    Working people, especially in times past, were used to forming teams on an ad hoc basis to get their joint projects done, whether farm work, shop work and even industrial work. An essential aspect of such practice is a succinctness and speed of communication. A group of three or four carpenters on a house project do not waste much time deciding who’s carrying up the plywood, who’s nailing down the roofing shingles and who’s going to the taqueria to get the lunch orders. Management types call this “work flow.”

    Experience merging your work flow with others trains you to communicate much with little, and quickly, with others similarly experienced. This becomes less explicit with office work (staring at a computer screen eight hours a day), and the skill is less developed among people who work in parallel isolation. This skill would have been highly developed in the types of workers Karl Marx would have been familiar with, but it is not as common among today’s workers in the United States, because a smaller fraction of the population does 19th century type work.

    Construction work today, even with power tools, is not so different from how it was performed in the 19th century, and even earlier. But the nature of work has changed so much over the last century (even the last thirty years) that far fewer people have learned how to mesh their work flows efficiently. That is the skill essential to the effectiveness of a political organization. The big questions, “what are we fighting for?” and “how do we proceed?” are resolved quickly because everyone “just knows” the answers. The only issues to discuss are those of the moment: who’s hammering?, who’s carrying?, who’s fetching?, and who’s in charge for now? There are a few (a few) regular meetings to go over the job, iron out problems and reassign tasks and leadership roles in an agreeable manner. The less friction generated and smoother work flow merging carried on, the greater the percentage of the collective effort that goes into achieving results.

    The other socializing influence on 19th and 20th century industrial workers was the process of industrialization itself. The use of human beings as repetitive motion machines in an organized structure of work flow that ingested raw material and produced manufactured products. The “assembly line” and “efficiency” had their baneful psychological effects, but they also had their reflection in the “efficiency of scale” mentality and meshing of efforts that industrial workers brought to their unions, and the socialist political parties they supported (e.g., Eugene V. Debs). The craftsman’s skill and discipline of autonomously meshing work flows was compressed into assembly line factory work, and the shaping/distortions of the psyche from these occupational activities was naturally carried over to the workers own collective enterprises. Collective work attuned them to collective awareness, the process of industrialization compressed them into organized assemblages, and the continuous pressures for efficiency and production stamped socialism into them.

    This mentality has died away because the nature of work that formed it has died away — here. To find it today, go to China, where the officially Communist government is just as severe as Andrew Carnegie was to throttle independent socialism in the form of labor unions. American socialists today are people who pick up books, or read from computer screens, and choose to associate in clubs that discuss specialized topics in history, and try to relate them to events of the present day, and in the best instances to contribute to the analysis and resolution of current social and economic problems. These sound like sociology professors, not sheet metal workers pounding out Ferrari car bodies by hand (in the 1950s and 1960s) and then riding home on bicycles.

    The perceived problem with organizing socialists today may be that you really don’t have a collection of industrially pre-socialized workers seeking to ensure their economic survival though collective action, but a symposium of college junior faculty determined to have their theories persevere against rivals. I was once the president of a unionization group for scientists and engineers (physicists, chemists, engineers with graduate degrees); it didn’t work, they were all so smart individually that they were determined to be collectively stupid (with a small minority that was quite effective).

    I think the reason organizing a 21st century American socialist party is difficult is because those enthused about socialism have little connection to the concerns of most Americans (quaintly called “workers”), and they in turn are fixated on the conditions (and distractions) in which they live out their lives, and have no interest in “socialism” or anything theoretical, and are only interested in what specific solutions you have for their problems in the here-and-now.

    People will follow those leaders who spell out concrete solutions that work. They will not care if that leader looks into a crystal ball or Das Kapital to tingle his brain so it spits out workable solutions, like Midas’ goose laying golden eggs. As long as the ideas are golden and steadily produced, the public will follow, but few people will ever care to know about the inspiration that tingled the sorcerer’s brain. You have to lead with results.

    Even worse, you don’t necessarily gain power and glory by putting out those concrete golden ideas, because others may be far better qualified to translate “your” ideas into social reality. If an idea is really good, it will be stolen. But for these socio-political situations you shouldn’t care so long as the ideas improve society. If you want anything more out of the process, personally, then you’re just a careerist and the hell with you.

    In summary, if your goal is to organize a party that draws in people to join in your enthusiasm for socialism (adopting a socialist canon to interpret their observations of life), you will not find overwhelming public interest. If instead, you wish to organize a political party that produces workable solutions to popular problems, then you will gain public support commensurate with your degree of concrete achievement (from the public’s perspective) but you would have to be willing to keep your socialism personal, or even let it go.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — January 7, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

  5. ‘Road Maps, Dead Ends, and the Search for Fresh Ground: How Can We Build the Socialist Movement in the 21st Century?’ by Dan DiMaggio is a major contribution to the discussion on ‘party-building methodology’ (to use Louis’s term). It visits, or visits in greater depth, new corners and will be of great enlightenment to the many activists affected by the paralysis of the plethora of puny pugnacious parties on the far left. It should receive wide circulation.

    One thing that puzzles me about it is that the voice is often that of a new discoverer of these issues and of isolation. Dan says (page 47), “I don’t have a blueprint for what a different socialist movement would look like, and I think it will require a creative exchange of ideas involving people who are much more gifted organizers and thinkers than I. I merely hope to catalyze such a discussion by making it clear that what exists is, in my opinion, both unacceptable and not inevitable”.

    He asks, “why does there seem to be no real organized expression of the ideas I’m raising, since I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who feel similarly? (page 34)”. And says, “Whenever people start to question the logic of building a sect, where can they turn? What organized force is out there for socialists not interested in joining one of the many existing groups? The landscape is all but barren (page 35)”

    Yet he refers throughout to a line of interest in alternative forms of organisation, a stream critical of modern sectism on the marxist left, going back to Hal Draper, perhaps its founding father. In this, his largely US centred line, Dan takes in Peter Camejo and Louis Proyect along the way. Indeed clicking on the category link ‘revolutionary organizing’ at the top of this post will put up a treasure trove of material on organisation culminating just recently in the pieces from Pham Bihn.

    Tucked away in footnote 66 is a reference to several organised expressions of the ideas he is raising: the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Alliance in Australia and in France the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA). There is a whole continent of broad or pluralist left and socialist parties, or aspiring parties, in Europe and Dan might have added Die Linke in Germany, the Dutch Socialist Party, Greece’s Synaspismos, Denmark’s Red Green Alliance, the Left Bloc in Portugal and the United Left Alliance in Ireland.

    Some of these initiatives have been more successful than others. Some are now significant players in their domestic politics (as I write two ULA TDs [members of parliament] present their case on the main Irish weekly news programme]. But tragically Rifondazione in Italy has effectively committed suicide, as has the SSP in Scotland. RESPECT in England limps to oblivion. Both these latter demises were assisted by Britain’s ‘revolutionary’ organisations.

    Dan refers too to two pioneers of the search for “fresh ground”, the Australian journal Links and the US organisation Solidarity. Solidarity has been around for quite some time, saying similar things as Dan!

    To accompany and precede all these organisational efforts there is now a long shelf of literature from the international debate and discussion on the marxist left around unity, left regroupment, a New Left, left alliances and organisation (in particular ‘broad parties’ v. ‘revolutionary organisation’). A shelf on which Dan DiMaggio’s article must now take a prominent place. Recently published is, as far as I know, the first book-length treatment of the matter: ‘New parties of the Left: Experiences from Europe’: by Daniel Bensaid, Alda Sousa and Alan Thornett (Socialist Resistance, London, 2011). Just now a major, but tellingly anonymous, article has emerged from inside the British SWP, ‘On the historical experiences of IS and SWP with factions’, which can be found at http://splinteredsunrise.wordpress.com/2011/12/29/guest-post-on-the-historical-experiences-of-is-and-swp-with-factions/

    The best writer among these is, IMHO, Murray Smith who is actually, like Dan, also a former adherent of the CWI, followed closely by Phil Hearse, who also came out of the CWI tradition I think.

    The following are readings which will repay the effort. (I notice that there is a predominance among them of the Fourth International [USFI]. I cannot really explain this. My own tradition is the IS one, but on organisation the USFI seems to be generally saying the right things.)

    Website page: ‘Socialist Perspectives’ (part of the Marxsite website) http://marxsite.com/leninismdebates.htm

    Pamphlet: Alex Callinicos, ‘The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left’ (SWP, March 2001) http://www.marxists.de/intsoctend/callinicos/isodoc.htm

    Journal; ‘Links’ (DSP Australia, No 23, January-April 2003). http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/8 Contains a compilation of then recent articles debating left unity.

    Journal: ‘International Socialism’ (Issue 97, December 2002). Contains some of the articles in ‘Links’ 23, above; http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj97/contents.htm

    Journal: ‘International Socialism’ (Issue 100, September 2003): Includes the full article ‘The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front: a reply to John Rees’ by Murray Smith. http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=5&issue=100)

    Journal: Murray Smith, ‘Some remarks on democracy and debate in the Bolshevik Party’, Links No.26, DSP Australia, July 2004. http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/6

    Internet article: ‘Phalanxes Are Bad’ by Phil Hearse (November 2007 http://www.marxsite.com/DemCentBLP.html

    Blog posting: Posted on Socialist Unity blog, 20th April 2007, Murray Smith, ‘The Radical Left in Western Europe’: http://socialistunity.blogspot.com/2007/04/radical-left-in-western-europe.html

    Blog posting, Spring 2009: http://www.isg-fi.org.uk/spip.php?article645; Alan Thornet, ‘What Kind of New Organisation Do We Need?’ A Contribution to the discussion on organisation between former members of the SWP, Socialist Resistance and others who were involved in a process of regroupment after the Respect split.

    Blog article: ‘Putting the “Russian questions” on the back burner’, ‘The Unrepentant Marxist’ blog by Louis Proyect (https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/) 21st November 2009;

    Journal and Internet article: David Packer, ‘Revolutionary organisation and its relationship to building a broad left party’, International Viewpoint, January 2008, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1416&var_recherche=David%20packer

    An example of the case from the other side would be the following
    piece from Louis Proyect: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/01/06/from-the-lcr-to-the-npa/

    Journal debate: 1. International Socialism, No 120, October 2008, Alex Callinicos, ‘Where is the radical left going?’ http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=484&issue=120 2. International Socialism, No 121, January 2009, François Sabado, ‘Building the New Anti-capitalist Party’ http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=512&issue=121 Alternative versions of these two articles can be found in International Viewpoint, November 2008, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1560&var_recherche=Alex%20Callinicos

    Article: Daniel Bensaid, ‘Notes on recent developments in the European radical left’, International Viewpoint, December 2009, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1785

    Journal and internet article: Paul Kellogg, ‘Leninism: It’s not what you think’, Socialist Studies, 5(2), Fall 2009 and the Australian Links journal, http://links.org.au/node/1407

    One of Chris Harman’s last short pieces, on the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France:

    Document: ‘Building left unity out of the wreckage’ (January 10th, 2010), a document from Socialist Resistance on the left after the various attempts to found a new left in Britain, http://socialistresistance.org/?p=801

    In Britain following on from the ‘No2EU’ alliance a new electoral alliance called ‘The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition’, (TUSC) was established which stood candidates in the British general election. http://www.tusc.org.uk/ Largely a Socialist Party initiative, union leader Bob Crowe is a supporter, but no trade unions as such are involved. The SWP has joined.

    Comment by Des Derwin — January 8, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

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    Pingback by How Can We Build the Socialist Movement in the 21st Century? by Dan DiMaggio « Tomás Ó Flatharta — January 8, 2012 @ 11:32 pm

  7. Thanks for this, Louise. I forwarded this to some comrades and this is the reply I received from one of them:

    [DiMaggio] is scum, I’ve worked with him before. Complete opportunist. The Dan DiMaggio approach to politics (I’m very familiar with how he works) is always trying to gauge the “consciousness” level of students/workers/protestors and attempting to appeal to them on a broad base, rather than trying to argue for the most advanced position. He was against the student occupation at The New School in New York, but supported it when he realized that he and the other flavors of Trotskyist could use it to pound their message to a captive audience. Then, when things looked bad, he denounced it as the work of the anarchists (partially true) and then attempted to smear his fellow “comrades” as being whiney insurrectionists (he was again partially true, but then implicates himself here as well) by digging up some dumb stuff they must have written back in 2008 when The New School was occupied.

    He then recommends a horrible article by a comrade of his who basically says that militants shouldn’t be afraid to become part of the Democratic Party’s “left-wing” in order to prove to the obviously dumb masses that they are lock, stock and sold by big business. This pathetic form of entryism seemed to be hailed among many who still believe that we are living in 1938.

    No surprise that the All-NYC OWS student movement is now slowing down while DiMaggio now points the finger at his beloved Trotskyist organizations as the source of the problem rather than, well, Trotskyism. These sorts of drawn-out tantrums by DiMaggio and his ilk are forever being debated by other members of the ISO, Solidarity, Socialist Action, etc.

    That’s just for what it’s worth…

    Comment by dermokrat — January 9, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

  8. Look, the reason I was skeptical (along with many, many others) about the recent New School occupation was that we didn’t feel like we could really trust the people who were leading it up given our experiences in meetings, etc. The previous two New School occupations, which happened before I was ever in NYC, should have been a warning about how the recent one would end up, but unfortunately many of us were unaware of them.

    I along with others who were skeptical nevertheless made an effort to support the most recent occupation not because we had a “captive audience” (that’s a ridiculous accusation) but because the vast majority of people who were at the planning meetings for November 17th were in support of it and so we felt we should support the decision that was made and not stand in the way of it, no matter our skepticism. In fact, we were responsible for several of the most successful events there – a good meeting of the NYC Student General Assembly and a talk by Olivier Besancenot of the French NPA. And then, yes, when the New School administration threatened eviction but offered a new space in an art gallery, many of us voted for this option, feeling that the situation inside the New School occupation was untenable and not favorable for the growth of the movement, whereas a new space would allow us to regroup and try to establish a more welcoming space from which to build. Unfortunately, the small minority of people who disagreed with this decision by the vast majority refused to leave (accusing the administration of packing the meeting, though I’m pretty sure they also question theoretically the use of any democratic procedures that do not end up in a victory for the “most advanced,” defined as far as I can tell as themselves). And then some people went and trashed the art gallery space that had been granted. Whatever.

    You can chalk my position up to my politics, which you might disagree with, sure – but it’s not as if my position is a tiny minority or limited to “Trotskyists.” It’s interesting to note that some of the most active organizers in the current OWS movement went through some of the previous New School occupations and likely had similar frustrations. Or maybe you can chalk it up to the fact that I am “scum,” if you feel that’s a more accurate analysis, though it often feels like like I’m considered “scum” just because I actually speak up and voice what plenty of others are thinking. But it’d be great if we could actually have a movement that makes an effort to work together, not resort to name-calling or baiting, and has some basic commitment to some form of democratic norms, which includes respect.

    Finally, the All-NYC Student OWS movement is now slowing down because schools are on winter break … The student movement is poised to re-emerge strong in a few weeks time, building toward a March 1st National Day of Action for Education.

    Comment by Dan DiMaggio — January 9, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

  9. Also dermokrat, do you not consider it slightly irresponsible to post that type of attack? Or is the Internet just free game? If you want to e-mail me personally, my e-mail address should be included at the end of the piece.

    Comment by Dan DiMaggio — January 9, 2012 @ 5:26 pm

  10. Draper’s critique of sects disguised as parties or “revolutionary organizations” is mostly a repetition of what Marx and Engels wrote. The first step in the U.S., they said, is to create an independent workers’ party, and that is where things stand today.

    Comment by Binh — January 10, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

  11. “In summary, if your goal is to organize a party that draws in people to join in your enthusiasm for socialism (adopting a socialist canon to interpret their observations of life), you will not find overwhelming public interest. If instead, you wish to organize a political party that produces workable solutions to popular problems, then you will gain public support commensurate with your degree of concrete achievement (from the public’s perspective) but you would have to be willing to keep your socialism personal, or even let it go.”

    This statement is both false and opportunistic. The reality is that in today’s politics it would be totally impossible for any type of political leader to put forward even a mildly Leftist program without getting drilled on the question “Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?” It’s not an accident that even a Reaganite like Barack Obama is lambasted endlessly as “Socialist Obama!”

    If anyone moderately to the Left were to appear they would be either forced to explain in detail how their program is different from that of Earl Browder or Gus Hall and why they should not be considered as “Communist” by Rush Limbaugh, or else they would have no choice but to openly declare themselves as “Marxist” in some vague sense. It could certainly never happen that someone would be able to sneak in a Leftist agenda through the backdoor while avoiding any references to “socialism.” Right-wingers have traditionally been in their most paranoid states when looking out for “backdoor socialists” whom they constantly suspect of easing in the hidden agenda.

    One of the worst things which purported “Leftists” can do is to talk as if it would ever be possible to resolve the crisis of capitalism without openly declared socialist programs. The only effect of such talk is that it helps to feed the Right-wing paranoia that Obama is enacting a Communist agenda without announcing his real aims. But it can’t bring things any closer to actually carrying out a program for anything. When such a program is enacted it will have to be an avowedly socialist program so that any fool on FOX News who complains that something is “socialist” can be told straight-up that is what it is and that such is the intent, to carry the class war to its logical conclusion. An alleged “Left” which is not able to openly state such aims will not be permitted to do more than elect another version of Obama.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — January 11, 2012 @ 12:43 am

  12. A psychological disorder is: “Any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation.” — George Alexander Kelly (1905-1967), http://oaks.nvg.org/george-kelly.html.

    Kelly’s definition is the oldest likely source of the several quotes that have been blended into the well known saying attributed to Albert Einstein (1879-1955):

    “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

    I would say that what Dan DiMaggio is complaining about is the fatigue that follows from persisting with a personal construction that is resolutely invalidated by reality. He and others like him are missionaries in a faith that is consistently rejected by the American public, and not much popular elsewhere (without compulsion).

    DiMaggio expresses a desire to be involved in a popular political movement that implements socialist ideas, because he is convinced they would help make society better. I, too, happen to think that many socialist ideas would make society better. I am also sure that never in a thousand years will self-avowed Marxists succeed in forming a popular mass movement, let alone a government, in the United States. In the last half century they have not demonstrated anything of practical benefit to society (except perhaps as individuals), and they aren’t even capable of organizing themselves beyond micro-sects. Politically organized American socialism died with Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926).

    My earlier comments (#4) show that 21st century Americans cannot be organized with 19th century conceptualizations of “workers” and “movements.” However, persisting in such efforts is the avid hobby of a dedicated group of enthusiasts, similar to the people who restore, maintain and run steam locomotives. This only becomes dysfunctional when your expectations are grandiose.

    I have observed that when a man’s house is on fire, he is quite grateful to anyone who rushes over with a hose to put out the flames. Such help usually opens the homeowner to the idea of companionship with his helpers, and from there real friendship and a receptivity to new ideas and joint projects might develop. Now, it could happen that the homeowner finds that some of these helpers were fundamentalist Christians seeking recruits door-to-door, or redneck Republican neighbors, or some other type disfavored by the homeowner’s belief system, so he remains cordial and grateful but never merges his activities with theirs.

    Wouldn’t it have been more convenient to stop his helpers as they were rushing in, to interview them first to ascertain their acceptability before allowing them to enter his property with hoses and ladders? It is unlikely he’d have a house left if he had.

    My concluding statement in comment #4 simply applies this basic fact of human psychology to make a suggestion to DiMaggio as regards his desire to be involved in a popular political movement that improves American society by applying socialist ideas. It says, bluntly, give up the proselytizing mission and just develop — in reality, not in talk — helpful solutions to people’s problems. After people experience the benefit of your work, some of them will be receptive to learning more about your belief system. This is the basis of charity relief work whether carried on by Catholic relief agencies, or as the Black Panther food programs (today the Uhuru Movement), or by Cuban Communist medical missionaries. (In reply to #11) This has nothing to do with trying “to sneak in a Leftist agenda through the backdoor.”

    However, I added a further caution (in #4). In thinking about how to solve social problems in the here-and-now (e.g., empty food banks, foreclosures, student loan debt, unemployment, homelessness in a country with excess housing inventory, the opportunities today are limitless) you may find that the strictures of your faith, your belief system, are too narrow, even outmoded for the times, and you may have to move beyond them. The socialism of the past may help you visualize ideals for the immediate future, but it cannot be assumed to contain all the answers needed to achieve those near futures: you must move from faith to atheism, and work with existing reality.

    The goal is to inspire people to form closer community, to care for and share “the commons” of natural resources, to participate in a socialism that expresses equality as a sense of solidarity and mutual help and not of forced standardization and regimentation, to liberate rather then enslave human potential as broadly as possible (see “human development index”). If instead, you seek to convert the heathens to your denomination of socialist worship, then you are wasting your efforts and their time. Don’t confuse your menu with their meal.

    If you expect to change “them” into what you are now, forget it.

    To change “them,” you accept becoming one of them, so “we change.”

    What we change into is never entirely known, or fixed.

    “Ours is never a struggle between good and evil, but between the preferable and the detestable.”

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — January 11, 2012 @ 6:35 am

  13. Manuel wrote:

    “It [the conclusion in #4] says, bluntly, give up the proselytizing mission and just develop — in reality, not in talk — helpful solutions to people’s problems. After people experience the benefit of your work, some of them will be receptive to learning more about your belief system. This is the basis of charity relief work whether carried on by Catholic relief agencies, or as the Black Panther food programs (today the Uhuru Movement), or by Cuban Communist medical missionaries. (In reply to #11) This has nothing to do with trying ‘to sneak in a Leftist agenda through the backdoor.'”


    Wow. Where did this vulgar empiricism come from? I admit that I haven't read everything you've written, but I don't recall reading anything in any of your more recent stuff to suggest that ignoring how things look on the surface of relationships is somehow beneficial or even non-harmful.

    Have you turned over some new leaf for the new year?

    Comment by Todd — January 11, 2012 @ 11:31 am

  14. “In the last half century they have not demonstrated anything of practical benefit to society (except perhaps as individuals), and they aren’t even capable of organizing themselves beyond micro-sects.”

    In the last half-century capitalism was a basically vibrant healthy system (with some obvious warts) and it was therefore never possible for any type of revolutionary party to honestly develop in such a context. Now it’s true that this did lead to the growth of many sects which were often unable to tell the difference between simply studying Lenin or Trotsky for general insight versus actually building a functioning party rooted among workers. At a time when the workers themselves were all mostly pretty happy with what capitalism had to offer them, it became more and more common for the discontented few to confuse the defense of their dissertation on Leon Trotsky with “building the revolutionary vanguard party!” That has resulted in quite a few silly phenomena as part of the social landscape which anyone who surveys the Left will notice.

    Still, none of that is really very relevant to the future. The crisis of capitalism today is real, fundamental and long-term. Though there may occur some specific upticks in the economy, the general direction is clearly one which renders the last half-century pretty much irrelevant. Apart from anything else which this involves, it also makes it impossible to carry out any kind of program without explicitly enunciating socialist aims. The fact that multitudes of sects from the last half-century when capitalism was healthy and stable were also enunciating socialist aims and getting nowhere while burying their heads in posters of Lenin is just a tangential observation.

    The Right-wing makes it impossible to carry forward any sort of politics without being explicitly asked “Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?” To the extent that some would-be Leftists may seek to evade this in the classical style of Earl Browder or Gus Hall, they are not heeding the comment that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” On the contrary, the idea that one should be able to bury any talk of socialism under a generic popular front has a very long history behind it and is not some new innovation. Neither is the idea of building a revolutionary workers party. These are all old themes which have been kicked around multiple times in the last century. What is new and different today is the crisis of capitalism, which did not exist in the 1960s (despite the tendency for people to confuse civil disobedience protests of that era with such a crisis).

    If anyone wishes to really see where it leads in today’s economy when one attempts to avoid explicitly putting forward a socialist program while engaging in activism then look no further than Barack Obama. What deserves special notice is the fury with which the Right-wing has branded Obama’s Reaganite agenda as “socialist” without him doing anything to invite such terms. That is the starting point at which political debate in the USA begins, whether one likes it or not. Without a clear position on socialism as the base of a political program then you simply have no program. If this fact isn’t clearly digested then there’s no point in worrying about first base when one hasn’t even stepped up at bat yet.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — January 11, 2012 @ 11:54 am

  15. > This has nothing to do with trying “to sneak in a Leftist agenda through the backdoor.”

    Of course not. That is how the Right-wing will characterize it. When much of the Left buried their heads in Obama’s lap in 2008 this did nothing to sneak a Leftist agenda through the backdoor. It merely aroused Right-wing accusations that such was going on. But all that campaigning for Obama accomplished in reality was to defuse the potential for independent class-struggle among workers at the time and enable the Right to take the offensive with the Teabaggers. That, too, is all that can be accomplished by attempting to play down socialism and simply declare “Catholic relief agencies, Black Panther food programs, Cuban Communist medical missionaries, heh, what’s the difference, ain’t it all the same?” Try asking Ann Coulter to elaborate some of the differences for you. That should be more educational.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — January 11, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

  16. Oops! Instead of writing “focusing on”, I accidentally wrote “ignoring” in #13.

    Comment by Todd — January 11, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

  17. Two Excerpts from Léon Blum, on Organizing, & Sectarianism

    — from his speech at the

    Socialist Party Congress at Tours, 27 December 1920

    “Before an assembly whose decision has already been made, whose will to join [the Third International] is firm and unshakable, I must defend a motion which concludes in a pure and simple refusal to join.”


    Two Excerpts (on organizing, on sectarianism):


    Your vocation is to gather together all the proletarians of all countries. There is no other limit to the size of the Socialist party than the number of workers and wage-earners. Our Party was therefore a party with as large a recruitment as possible. As such, it was a party of freedom of thought, for the two ideas are necessarily related. If you want to group all workers, all wage-earners, all the exploited in a single party, you can only unite them around simple and general slogans. You will say to them: “All those who want to work to change the economic system, all those who believe (for this is the foundation of Marxism) that there is an ineluctable connection between the development of capitalism on the one hand and that of socialism on the other – all of you are socialists. If you are with us in this task, your act of faith is completed. You are socialists.” Within this credo, this essential affirmation, all varieties and shades of opinion are tolerated.


    And there are moments when they have the right and the duty to say to themselves: “Can I follow, or can I not?” That is where we have arrived today. A majority vote, I repeat, will not alter a cry of conscience so strong within us that it drowns out the concern for unity that has always been our guide. We are convinced that at this moment, there is a more urgent question than whether socialism will remain united or not. It is the question of whether socialism will survive or not. We are convinced, to the very depth of our being, that while you go running after adventure, someone must remain to guard the old house. It is the very life of socialism that we are profoundly aware of preserving at this moment with all our strength. And, since it is perhaps the last occasion for me to say it to you, I would like to ask from you something which is of grave importance in my eyes. Can we truly, both sides, make a supreme commitment to this? Tomorrow, we will be divided, perhaps, as men who understand the interests and duties of socialism differently. Or will we be divided as enemies? Are we going to pass our time in front of the bourgeoisie treating one another as traitors and renegades, madmen and criminals? Will we not give one another credit for acting in good faith? I ask: Is there anyone here who believes that I am not a socialist? In this hour, which is, for all of us, an hour of tragic anxiety, let us not add that to our sorrows and fears. Let us know how to abstain from words which wound and lacerate, from hurtful acts, from everything that would be fratricidal struggle. I say this to you because it is without doubt the last time I will address many of you and because it must, however, be said. Let all of us, though we are separated, remain socialists. Despite everything, let us remain brothers, brothers separated by a quarrel which is cruel but which is, nonetheless, a family quarrel, and whom a common hearth may some day reunite.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — January 12, 2012 @ 5:18 am

  18. Manuel, why do Blum’s words on socialists joining or not joining the Third International have a bearing on this particular argument? AFAICT, there is no “dividing line” of such importance facing (only) socialists nowadays (and I wouldn’t call the self-generated lines dividing grouplets as important as that single one).

    Comment by Todd — January 12, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

  19. In fact, Blum’s example points in the opposite direction from something like this:

    “In summary, if your goal is to organize a party that draws in people to join in your enthusiasm for socialism (adopting a socialist canon to interpret their observations of life), you will not find overwhelming public interest. If instead, you wish to organize a political party that produces workable solutions to popular problems, then you will gain public support commensurate with your degree of concrete achievement (from the public’s perspective) but you would have to be willing to keep your socialism personal, or even let it go.”

    Blum has been attacked from the Left as a fake socialist and what not, but no one has ever accused Blum of actually playing down his purported socialism in the sense of “keep your socialism personal, or even let it go.” Blum, whatever else you may say about him, understand very well that that would be pointless.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — January 12, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

  20. I think the recent developments in Leninology are very informative and certainly open up the possibility to revisit some of the accepted organsiational principles on the far left where sect building is the norm.

    I just had a question to US comrades (since I am in Britain) – all the talk of a new broader socialist party around an anticapitalist programme and so on, what is the relationship of Solidarity to this discussion? Qutie often I read “and the left organisation Solidarity is making similar points…” So why don’t comrades like Dan DiMaggio or Pham Binh or Louis Proyect or the others join that organisation and promote it as a fulcrum through which something bigger can come?

    This is not a ‘pointed’ question at all, I know very little about Solidarity and can imagine there are all kinds of issues with it. But is there a dynamic between Solidarity, the Socialist Viewpoint regroupment call and other potential organisations or individuals to launch something together?

    In Britain some of us are discussing launching a new anticapitalist organsiation which would unite socialists, libertarian Marxists, and student activists into a new broad formation around a set programme (opposition to the cuts, support for a united anticuts movement, solidarity with the Palestinians, support for mass political strikes against the government, etc). It is only in early stages for now but we hope to make progress in the coming months – goodness knows the British left needs a shake up after the debacle with RESPECT!

    Comment by Simon Hardy — January 16, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

  21. At the age of 67 in 10 days, I am a bit old to join any group at this point in my life. I do have a couple of problems with Solidarity but neither would have preempted my joining if I was 20 years younger or so. One, I have a visceral distaste for Sam Farber whose articles on Cuba appear far too frequently in Against the Current. The other is that Solidarity does not have the kind of dynamism I would like to see in a group trying to create a pole of attraction for the non-sectarian left. For example, they never organize forums in their own name on the burning questions of the day. I suspect that most of their efforts are directed toward building a left-wing presence in the trade union movement but as Lenin pointed out in “What is to be done”, Marxism has to be on the forefront of all social struggles, not just those at the point of production.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 16, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

  22. Simon, I submitted my Tasks piece to Against the Current (Solidarity’s magazine). It has not been published thus far. Dan La Botz reached out to me, as did a handful of other Solidarity members, but aside from that, I have heard nothing from them. I have heard from Socialist Viewpoint. The reality is that the future of the socialist movement in the U.S. (if it has one) lies with the independents and the independent-minded members of Solidarity, SP USA, and DSA, not with the “revolutionary” groups. And yes, initiatives are underway coming out of my Tasks piece. I didn’t write it with the expectation that the existing socialist left would wake up, smell the coffee, and start rolling with the punches. I never had any intention of playing wait-and-see with them. There is no sense in tailing tailists.

    Comment by Binh — January 18, 2012 @ 5:14 am

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