AGAINST THE CURRENT has begun an important discussion on the nature of Leninism. Writing for the Revolutionary Socialist League, I agree that there are ‘Two Souls of Socialism” (the title of a 1966 pamphlet by Hal Draper), an authoritarian socialism-from-above and a democratic/libertarian socialism-from-below. Draper believed that Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky were on the side of socialism from-below. So does Alan Wald, adding “the Trotskyists” and the Sandinistas.
Without agreeing with everything Tim Wohlfarth says, he raises another possibility: that the dividing line between the two sorts of “socialism” may run through the work of Lenin, Trotsky, and — in my opinion-Marx.
There are both authoritarian and democratic sides to Leninism and Marxism. Unfortunately, the “heirs of Marx” today are mostly either state-capitalist dictators or social democrats-both supporters of capitalist imperialism and statism. We need to investigate what is the flaw in Marxism which permits it to be used by such statist forces.
Anarchism too has its libertarian and authoritarian “souls.” I believe that we need to work toward a new synthesis of Marxism and anarchism, to create a libertarian socialism which is revolutionary, radically democratic, and self-managing.
Paradoxically, Lenin opened up the possibility of such a resynthesis at the time of the Russian Revolution. Influenced by the mass upheavals, he declared (in State and Revolution) that the capitalist state must not be replaced by a new bureaucratic regime but by an association of workers’ and farmers’ councils (soviets), backed by an armed people: the commune or council-state. The revolutionary party was urgently needed to fight for this program against other political programs, but it was not intended to become the new state.
In practice, Lenin abandoned the commune-state program. The repressive, bureaucratic machine which grew up during his rule was only partly due to objective pressures. At no time did Lenin announce, ‘We have to outlaw other parties on the Left because of conditions of civil war, invasion, blockade and mass starvation. This is a temporary measure which we will reverse as soon as practical. Meanwhile, foreign Communists should not take this situation as a model.” Quite the contrary. Lenin simply had no notion of pluralistic socialist democracy. (For a review of the facts, see C. Sirianni, Workers Control and Socialist Democracy: the Soviet Experience.)
The basic problem for Leninism, as for Marxism, is the (Hegelian-derived) belief that the laws of history, as brilliantly analyzed by Marx, are absolutely true and that we can be completely sure of them. This is expressed in the phrase, “socialism is inevitable.” The party claims to know these laws, with full certainty, and even to embody them. This is expressed in the phrase, “the party represents the working class.”
If we — and we alone — have the absolute knowledge of the way forward, then we would feel justified in outlawing other parties, suppressing strikes, repressing the peasants, and generally bashing in convenient people. Revolutionaries in other countries may feel critical of such terror, but would finally justify it as the “revolutionary process.”
Central to Alan Wald’s argument is his belief that Leninism might correct itself “from within its tradition.” The real question is whether any of the major Leninist tendencies is likely to correct itself from within, when their movement is in the other direction. 99% of today’s Leninists advocate a one-party, top-down dictatorship.
Alan claims that ” … for the past fifty years… the Trotskyists have championed multi-party systems. ..with ever-increasing vehemence.” Trotsky left his followers a two-sided inheritance: the call for multi party soviets, and the belief that the Soviet Union was a “workers’ state,” merely because industry was nationalized — even though the workers were powerless and exploited.
Occasionally today’s Trotskyists may refer to his democratic ideas, but mainly their politics emphasize his statist side. Generally they continue to “defend the Soviet Union,” are enthusiastic supporters of Castro’s one-man dictatorship, support the invasion of Afghanistan, and so on.
Alan also praises the socialist pluralism of ” … the followers of Max Shachtman in later years.” In his later years, Shachtman supported the U.S. in the Vietnam war and his followers now staff Reagan’s State Department.
Alan apparently claims the Sandinistas as fellow Leninists who also advocate multi-party socialism. Although Nicaragua is not a totalitarian state like Cuba, it is dominated by one party. In any case, it is not run by workers’ and peasants’ soviets, managing the economy and the state from the bottom up. To endorse the Sandinistas is actually to reject the commune-state, one of the best parts of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s heritage. That Alan does not see this is proof of the weakness of his “critical Leninism.”
At one point Leninism was probably the best of the alternate programs — after all, no one else was advocating multi-party councils either. But now it has come to a dead end, including its Trotskyist off shoot. We can only save its contributions if we are prepared to work on a broader integration of the libertarian “soul of socialism.”
Hundreds of students occupied their schools and universities on Tuesday as part of a global movement to disrupt educational institutions this May and push for an end to the fossil fuel economy.
The activists—mobilizing under the banner of End Fossil: Occupy!— say they take inspiration from the Parisian students of May 1968, whose protests led to one of the largest general strikes in French history.
“Fossil corporations have knowingly destroyed the environment and human lives for profit,” Teresa Núncio from End Fossil: Occupy! Portugal said in a statement. “We need to end the fossil economy and find a system that is for the people, not the rich.”
u201cud83cudf0e OCCUPATION WAVE ud83cudf0ennu270a Simultaneous student occupations in the UK, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and Germany. And more to comeu2026nnud83dudd25 In the spirit of May u201868, we are rising up in resistance to fossil capitalism and the destruction of our life support systems. nnThe time is nowu203cufe0fu2026u201d
— End Fossil: Occupy! (@End Fossil: Occupy!) 1683027044
This month’s wave of occupations builds on an earlier wave from September to December of 2022, in which more than 50 schools around the world were occupied, according to the group’s website. However, the students say that the persistence of the fossil fuel economy, represented by the record profits announced by major oil and gas companies early this year, mean there is more work to do. And they hope that this time, the movement won’t end at the school doors.
“We are calling on the rest of society to join us in resisting business-as-usual and the fossil economy’s death drive,” End Fossil U.K. activist Noah Herfort told Common Dreams.
“We are calling on the rest of society to join us in resisting business-as-usual and the fossil economy’s death drive.”
The current wave of actions got a head start April 26 in France, with around 100 to 150 students at 15 different universities coordinating actions against the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) in Uganda and Tanzania. The Climate Accountability Institute found that the project—partially backed by France’s TotalEnergies—could raise the yearly emissions of the two African countries by a factor of more than 25.
“We don’t want to work for companies that continue to invest in fossil fuels,” participating students said in a statement shared on Twitter. “We will not participate in enriching a sector that lives off the destruction of the planet.”
u201cud83dudea8STOP EACOP: Coordinated action at 15 French universities against Totalu2019s neocolonial climate destruction. nnu270a Yesterday French students held symbolic actions against EACOP, Totalu2019s carbon bomb that will displace 100,000 people in Uganda and Tanzania. nnud83dudcac u201cWe donu2019t want tou2026u201d
— End Fossil: Occupy! (@End Fossil: Occupy!) 1682609464
On April 29, youth climate activists in Uganda spoke up as well at a press conference in Kampala’s Kira Wakiso district, calling on world leaders, particularly in wealthy countries, to shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy.
“We want energies that can ensure a future that can last forever, energies that cannot waste our biodiversity,” End Fossil Occupy Uganda co-founder Nicholas Omonuk said, as New Vision reported.
The same day, Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate posted a video message encouraging students to participate in the month of occupations.
“May we occupy for our planet, for our cultures,” she urged. “May we occupy for our existence. May we occupy for climate justice. Another world is possible.”
u201cA clear message from @vanessa_vash. Occupy to eradicate poverty, occupy to end hunger, occupy for girls education, occupy for gender equality, occupy for our people, occupy for our planet, occupy for our existence, occupy for climate justice. Another world is possible.u201d
— End Fossil Occupy Uganda (@End Fossil Occupy Uganda) 1682788171
Some Portuguese students also started their occupations April 26, with four more launching Tuesday for a total of nine. One began in Coimbra, one in Faro, and two in Lisbon, with activists succeeding in shuttering one Lisbon high school.
The Portuguese students demand that their government stop using fossil fuels by 2030 and that it make renewable energy accessible to all families by 2025.
u201cud83dudea8 LISBON HIGH SCHOOL SHUT DOWNnnStudents are demanding the government end fossil fuels by 2030 and accessible renewable electricity for all families by 2025. nnOccupations will continue until our demands are met.nn#MayWeOccupy #EndFossil #ClimateEmergencyu201d
— End Fossil: Occupy! (@End Fossil: Occupy!) 1683018347
In neighboring Spain, around 30 students camped out in the civic plaza of the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB), as LaMareareported. The students have three demands: more public funding for Barcelona’s universities, no more university contracts with private companies like Santander—which poured $51,168 billion into fossil fuels between 2016 and 2022—and a new mandatory university course on the current ecological and social crisis. This last demand was won by an End Fossil occupation at the University of Barcelona last year.
“Universities are a very important space to push for a necessary social transformation,” German UAB master’s student and participant Anna Sach told La Marea, “and we’re here because right now the university is not living up to the demands of the times.”
u201cSince this morning we occupy the @UABBarcelona ud83cudfeb nWe will stay and be loud until the @gencat will comply with our 3 concrete demands for a sustainable and public financing of all catalan universities u270a#EndFossiln#MayWeOccupyn#EndFossilOccupyn#Cataloniau201d
— End Fossil Barcelona (@End Fossil Barcelona) 1683031333
In Sach’s home country, meanwhile, university students have launched five occupations in Münster, Bremen, Regensburg, Bielefeld, and Berlin, with one secondary school in Berlin joining in as well. An occupation also took place in the city of Magdeburg. End Fossil: Occupy! Münster told Common Dreams that around 200 students joined in the occupation, which organizers hope will last until the administration agrees to a productive dialogue.
At the University of Regensburg, students suspended themselves from ropes from the ceiling of a lecture hall, along with a sign reading, “Clean gas is a dirty lie.”
“Fossil corporations and politicians actively sowed fear of climate action, fear of change, for decades. And change often seems dangerous, but ‘business as usual’ means death,” Syrina Bachinger from End Fossil: Occupy! Germany said. “Especially for the most vulnerable and often least responsible—the Global South, the working class, women, and children. The fossil economy only serves the interest of a few. A just system is possible, but we will need to fight for it.”
Students also occupied Belgium’s Ghent University with demands that the institution take binding action to transition away from fossil fuels, implement a mandatory undergraduate course on climate and sustainability policy, and make sustainable choices when reducing expenses, according to an Instagram post. The occupation is slated to last through May 5, and organizers told Common Dreams that around 40 students joined in on the first day.
Lastly, students at three universities in the U.K. also participated with a countrywide demand that the government nationalize fossil fuels.
Twenty activists with Student Rebellion set up six tents in a lecture theater at the University of Leeds with plans to stay until the university promised to end all relationships with fossil fuel companies, according to organizers and the students’ Instagram statement.
“We’re taking it upon ourselves to make up for the failings of the University of Leeds,” Adam Woods of Student Rebellion Leeds said. “The climate crisis is an existential global issue, yet they continually refuse to engage with students, or live up to their institutional responsibility to hold government to account. So we’re occupying the most public space on campus to hold them to account and do this work for them.”
Around 15 demonstrators came together at both Falmouth University and the University of Exeter to demand that the universities back the nationalization of the fossil fuel industry, that they introduce a mandatory course on the climate and ecological crisis, that they stop allowing the fossil fuel industry to recruit graduates, and that they organize people’s assemblies to discuss important issues facing the two schools, including the climate emergency.
Tuesday’s actions weren’t limited to campus. In the Czech Republic around 100 people marched for an “anti-fossil spring,” and around 50 plan to camp out in front of the Ministry of Industry and Trade tonight.
“We see climate action not just as a struggle to reduce emissions, but a struggle for justice,” Remi D. Dzianfrom of Universities for Climate in the Czech Republic said. “The most affected people and areas need sufficient support for loss and damages. Also, fossil companies need to be held responsible for the death and destruction they have caused.”
On July 4th of 2022, there was a very large gathering at the state capitol in Madison, and there was a speak-out, inviting community members to come up and speak on a bullhorn about how Roe v Wade being overturned had affected their reproductive rights, fertility, and just life in general. And they shared stories that were very personal. The organizers there had passed around a notebook asking for those serious about joining a social movement or creating a social movement to put their name and email or phone number in there so that they could follow up later.
An eviction defense in Detroit received national exposure on social media and news outlets like The Young Turks, Yahoo News!, Business Insider, The Root, as well as pop culture websites like The Shade Room. Several organizations on the Left came out to defend Taura Brown, a Black woman battling kidney disease and cancer, from a retaliatory and forceful eviction from her home. The non-profit – Cass Community Social Services (CCSS) – sought to evict Taura because she spoke out against the way she was misled and mistreated by the organization. The roughly 30 people who participated in the eviction defense were racially integrated and inter-generational. They represented Detroit Eviction Defense (DED), The Detroit Club of the Communist Party USA, Detroit Will Breathe (DWB), Detroit Tenants Association (DTA), the Washtenaw County General Defense Committee, and independent activists.
The standoff between court bailiffs and activists lasted more than 4 hours, as reported by a Bridge Detroit article on the eviction defense.
Self Organization Establishes Continuity of Struggle
Many of the activists and organizations participating in the home defense were participants of the 2020 BLM movement in Detroit. In fact, DWB, which was formed during the height of the 2020 protests, utilized the influence and resources they garnered during 2020 to aid Taura’s struggle against eviction. Since its founding, DWB has organized on a class independent basis that rejects endorsing or campaigning for any bourgeois party, be it Democrat or Republican. This is how DWB has been able to resist co-option by the Democrats and their stooges in NGOs and labor bureaucracies, and instead harness the power of the movement to decide for itself its demands and actions, expanding the movement in Detroit beyond the single issue of police brutality to connect with various struggles against systemic racism.
The organization that spearheaded the eviction defense, Detroit Eviction Defense (DED), was created during Occupy and has also been able to sustain itself in important struggles around housing in Detroit over the years on a class independent basis. DED not only rejects the idea that you can rely on the courts and the law to resolve the housing crisis, the organization points out the ways these institutions enforce the interests of banks and landlords. Only grassroots organizing of people facing eviction, their neighbors, co-workers, friends and family, and their supporters can stop evictions and resolve the housing crisis.
The approach of the various organizations towards the eviction defense of Taura Brown was one of class independence; all understood that neither political party was going to save us or make the fight we knew was needed to stop this eviction. This fact was made more concrete by the failure of liberal and even progressive politicians to take up Taura Brown’s struggle. Equally important and impactful was the fact that practically all of the organizations and activists, Taura Brown included, participated in the mass mobilizations against police brutality and the demand to defund and abolish the police.
A Militant Defense By Forces With Social Weight
Although relatively small in number, in part because the eviction was carried out at the beginning of the work day, the home defenders were able to use their bodies to give militant resistance to the bailiffs, who used physical violence, slamming people onto the ground, and grabbing people by their necks. The home defenders forced the bailiffs to retreat twice and eventually call in reinforcements.
Part of the power of our presence was the political authority of the BLM movement and its exposure of police brutality and misconduct. In Detroit, that was expressed in popular opposition to the violence of the police against protesters in 2020, which has created a dynamic where police violence against the movement has political consequences and backlash for the police. The 2020 protests in Detroit also created boldness within the movement to directly face the police, with one of the chants of the movement being “We Don’t Back Down to Bullies With Badges”. The police were present at the eviction defense to ensure that the balance of power were in favor of the bailiffs, but did not seek to arrest any of the home defenders or take a physical role in helping carry out the eviction.
Our presence also helped draw media attention to Taura Brown’s eviction, and helped the movement continue to expose the true nature of the police as enforcers of exploitation and oppression in the service of the capitalists.
Ultimately, after regrouping and bringing in reinforcements, the bailiffs were able to force their way into the home and remove Taura’s belongings out of the home. However, home defenders were able to make sure Taura’s medical equipment and valuable belongings were secured and in her possession. They also gave strong, militant resistance to eviction that can set the type of standard that we will need as poor and working class people who continue to face unjust evictions and an increasingly severe housing crisis.
Key Takeaways of the Struggle
While this experience is powerful and holds many lessons, it comes with important limitations that have to be reckoned with. It should be clear from Tuesday’s eviction defense how much effort and resources the state has in enforcing the interests of the landlords and the capitalists. To deal with that will require more than just 100 more activists, a fact that does not dismiss or minimizes the importance of having 100 more activists in the struggle for housing in Detroit. It should, therefore, be understood that a main limitation of Tuesday’s mobilization is the general absence of a mass movement in the streets fighting against evictions and for housing to be a basic human right. The absence of a mass movement is not because people are not concerned or themselves impacted by the growing housing crisis. Rather, it is the result of the absence of a political alternative that could consistently challenge the authority of the capitalists, their state apparatus, and their political parties.
Without class independent self organization, that is, organization that is democratically controlled by the movement itself, the working-class and oppressed lack the space needed to create their own demands and the need to fight for those demands using the methods of the working-class, like strikes, walkouts, and mass, militant street mobilizations. Without self-organization, the working class and oppressed also lack a way of rebuking the co-optive efforts of the Democratic Party who, alongside the bureaucratic leaders of the NGOs and unions, bring the movement back into the fold of reformism. They convince the movement to demobilize and abandon their radical aspirations in favor of “practical” results that never actually address the needs of the working class and oppressed.
The Biden administration was able to co-opt the BLM movement with the assistance of some of the Left who saw the Democratic Party – and not the working-class and oppressed — as the only way to beat Trumpism and the threat of fascism. The Biden regime then proceeded to act on their campaign promise of “nothing fundamentally changing” and even relied on repressive measures to put sectors of the working-class and oppressed back in line for daring to struggle, like Biden did with the railroad workers.
This is why the revolutionary Left must play an active political role in promoting the need for organizations that are democratically controlled by the movement itself and are explicitly and consistently class independent. These organizations must reject the limits of reformism which, among other things, believe that only politicians and capitalists have power. They must fight to win their demands using the methods of the working class. These organizations must also seek to regroup the best elements of the BLM movement and other important struggles. A specific orientation towards the incipient labor movement highlighting the strategic power of the working class will be essential if we are to effectively fight not only evictions, but more broadly to make the revolutionary transformation that is ultimately necessary to make demands like housing as a human right real.
We know that the housing crisis in Detroit and across the country are going to get worse, and that more eviction defenses will be needed. This is why we must utilize the experience and exposure of the eviction defense in Detroit to prepare for the struggles to come, bringing more sectors into the struggle, all the while expanding it to include other struggles of importance for the working class and oppressed. Our preparation cannot simply be a tactical one, but must be a political one that aims to create a common program of the working class and oppressed that can help the movement sustain itself against the burnout and disorientation that comes from lacking an overall strategic plan that is national in scope and practice.
Taura Brown, 44, fought eviction from her tiny home (actual home not pictured) for two years before being removed from the property. But, Brown says she’s not done fighting to live in the affordable housing despite her appeal being denied.
Jeremy Poland/Getty Images
On Tuesday, Detroit bailiffs arrived at Taura Brown’s tiny home to evict her after a years-long battle.
They were met with about 30 protesters attempting to stop the eviction of Brown, who had been homeless.
The CCSS argues that Brown was improperly using the low-income housing as a second residence.
Detroit bailiffs were met with a blockade of about 30 protesters when they were sent to evict a woman living in a tiny home after a two-year battle over the property.
On Tuesday morning, 44-year-old Taura Brown was removed from her home on Detroit’s west side on orders from the 36th District Court, but not before protesters and officials clashed, according to The Detroit News.
Per the report, 30 people from the Detroit Eviction Defense, an activist group made up of landlords, retired attorneys, and rental tenant, linked arms to block Brown’s door and stop her eviction.
The physical clash between protesters and bailiffs was caught on camera, and the video went viral on Twitter. Eventually, bailiffs were able to enter the home, and remove Brown and her belongings despite the protests.
The legal battle has gone on since Cass Community Social Services (CCSS) decided against renewing Brown’s lease at the tiny home in early 2021.
Brown had lived in the home since December 2019, but by January 2021, CCSS, which oversees the Tiny Homes Detroit initiative, argued that she was using the low-income housing as a second home.
According to the official CCSS site, the Tiny Homes Detroit program consists of 25 homes available to those who qualify as “low-income,” and residents have the opportunity to own their tiny home after paying rent for seven years.
CCSS alleged that Brown didn’t live at the home more than 50% of the time and claimed to have found her name on another lease in Detroit, The Detroit News reported. Brown, who was previously homeless, asserts that nothing in her lease specifies how much time she has to be at the home.
“Obviously (eviction) doesn’t feel good. However, like I said I’m feeling confident about fighting back. We’re not done. We’re just getting started,” Brown told Detroit’s 7 Action News.
She said she worked at an apartment complex, where her then-boyfriend lived.
Her appeal of the eviction to Wayne County Circuit Court was denied in October 2022, and on March 22, Brown was ordered to vacate the home within 10 days. Sammie Lewis of the Detroit Eviction Defense then organized members of the group to protest when law enforcement arrived at Brown’s door, according to local reports.
“This has been an over two-year-long battle and it’s just extremely frustrating, heartbreaking. I feel just really angry at this point because this shouldn’t have happened,” Lewis told 7 Action News. “Housing is a human right. Everybody deserves the right to have a safe and secure house.”
The Detroit Eviction Defense group is a coalition of tenants, homeowners, and other advocates fighting against evictions and home foreclosures in the Detroit Metropolitan area.
Insider reached out to the Rev. Faith Fowler, executive director of CCSS, for a statement, but didn’t immediately receive a response. Fowler provided 7 Action News with a longer statement on Brown’s eviction.
“Sadly, Ms. Brown has chosen from the beginning to make another residence her primary home, violating both the spirit and the conditions of the Tiny Homes program,” the statement read.
“Her refusal to surrender the tiny house after her lease was not renewed in January of 2021 has deprived other low-income people the opportunity to live in, and eventually, own the home. Additionally, many people have suffered from her misinformation and slanderous attacks including her neighbors, CCSS staff members and myself.”
There were no arrests at the scene. Brown is staying with members of the Eviction Defense group for now, the News reported.
The following is the transcript from Tempest’s Building the Revolutionary Left Today panel. Panelists present the questions and takeaways from their experiences in the revolutionary Left.
Luis Meiners: Building on some of the experiences and debates that we are having in Argentina, I will try to draw some conclusions that can speak to the challenges of the revolutionary Left from an international perspective. Beyond specific national situations and characteristics, which are always incredibly important, there are also many challenges that are common to a revolutionary socialist Left internationally.
First, we need to define the challenge: How do we build revolutionary organizations that are rooted in the struggles of the working class and the oppressed, and that can organize and influence these broad layers to play a decisive role in the class struggle?
In other words, how do we move from smaller propaganda groups organized around ideological coherence to organizations that can have a broader influence and impact when the situation changes internationally or nationally? How can we organize the thousands that radicalize in specific moments?
One of the challenges of the revolutionary Left is that when the situation is open to its ideas, when sections of the working class and of the mass movements have turned to the left, many of our organizations have not been up to the challenge of meeting the moment. Making the step from a propaganda group to a broader revolutionary one is a common element in all discussions regarding revolutionary organization.
In Argentina, this debate was rooted in the 2001 experience. The Argentinazo was a mass popular uprising where a broad section of the working class, the middle class, students, etc., turned to the left quite radically and quite quickly. This had different expressions.
The popular assemblies (asambleas populares) sprung up all around the country, especially in Buenos Aires, which brought people together in a direct democracy model to debate a whole range of issues in which the Left played a role. There was also the piquetero movement of unemployed workers and the student movement.
In all these movements the revolutionary Left, which was essentially composed of relatively small groups, played a role,. One of these groups was the MST, which had come from the MAS (Movimiento Al Socialismo) – the largest revolutionary party in Argentina during the 1980s which had more than 10,000 members.
Argentine savers demand their money back from the financial Corralito in front of the BankBoston headquarters in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One of the many demonstrations composing the 2001 mass uprising Argentinazo. Photo Credit: Barcex.
But a crisis in that party left behind smaller groups. So, when the Argentinazo happened, the revolutionary Left, composed of these smaller groups, were suddenly playing important roles in the class struggle. For example, the revolutionary socialist Left, the MST, and other organizations won the leadership of the main student federation in the country, the Federación Universitaria de Buenos Aires. This is a student federation that groups together 300,000 students from the biggest university in the country. The Left won decisive influence in several unions, and all of this was driven by relatively small groups.
So, the question is: When there was a mass turn to the left (and despite having managed to play a role and have electoral influence) why couldn’t the revolutionary Left emerge from that process with a mass-based party, a broad vanguard party or something similar that could bring into the organization thousands of radicalizing people?
We did emerge from the 1990s (a period extremely hostile for the revolutionary Left in Argentina and in many parts of the world) and we did grow, but we were not able to fully seize the opening provided by the Argentinazo to make a qualitative leap forward in the task of building a revolutionary organization . This outcome was one of the reasons for the re-composition of the political regime under Nestor Kirchner after the 2001 uprising.
What conclusions were debated in the MST from this experience?
One of the main issues was how to relate to broader radicalizing layers of people who are not coming from the same political background. When people radicalize, they’re not coming from Trotskyism or from revolutionary Marxism. They’re coming from very different places. Also, many people had poor experiences with Stalinist parties, and so there was a certain hostility directed toward the revolutionary Left.
Another question was on how to broaden the democratic aspects of democratic centralism in our organizations and make them as democratic as possible to be able to incorporate the radicalizing layers of people and their experiences into our organizations.
There had evolved certain defensive modes of organization… in which complete political and ideological unity was necessary before anything else. This model hampered the possibility of moving from a small propaganda organization to something that had broader political influence.
In 2006, for example, MST reformed the internal statutes of the party to try to incorporate some of these conclusions and debates. We needed to change some of the ways in which democratic centralism was put into practice. Stalinism completely distorted democratic centralism, and some of these distortions had been inherited by trotskyist currents; like the idea of needing to have absolute complete political unity, bureaucratic centralism, etc. to build organizations. This idea also related to international experiences and a period in which the revolutionary socialist Left was in a very small minority and in a very hostile environment in different parts of the world. We thought it was very important to keep the flame alive, to keep alive the ideas of revolutionary socialism against currents of socialism-from-above in its different expressions, which were on the rise.
There had evolved certain defensive modes of organization in which any small difference led to a rupture within the organizations. This led to monolithic organization in which complete political and ideological unity was necessary before anything else. This model hampered the possibility of moving from a small propaganda organization to something that had broader political influence. So, a second question really is about the need to move away from this defensive model.
The third question is internationalism, as a practical consideration, and not only as a theoretical position or a moral stance. Beyond the fundamental principle of solidarity with the oppressed and exploited people all over the world, we also have to build international organizations.
The problems that revolutionary socialists face cannot be resolved by an isolated group, we are better equipped to face them if we work together with comrades from different parts of the world. If we build international organizations, within them, we can incorporate different views from different traditions that have shaped the revolutionary socialist movement today.
Today, there is no single current within the revolutionary socialist movement internationally that can claim to have the answers to all these questions. The answers to some of these questions are going to come from the convergence of different revolutionary socialist traditions that have been built for the last 50 to 60 years.
There is a need to build broad international organizations. There is also a need to debate how we can build revolutionary organizations so that we can move away from being small propaganda groups and meet the moments of broader radicalization.
Rabab Elnaiem: I always have to start by giving glory to the Martyrs of Sudan and saying “Long Live the Struggle for the People of Sudan.” It’s exciting to be among the Left in Sudan right now. And it’s also very challenging and sometimes very frustrating.
Around 2013, we had the first wave of the revolution. Within the span of three days, we had lost around 200 people who were killed in the streets of Khartoum and other cities around Sudan. And ever since, we’ve seen different strains of a second wave of the revolution in Sudan in terms of building revolutionary organizations.
We’ve seen a lot of organizations that are made up of younger people that are trying to break away from older political parties within Sudan. This was not an initiative on the part of the new organizations. Instead, it was a reaction and an expression of frustration with the absence of a political will – seeing all the conditions of the revolution, and yet no action for revolution.
Within all of this, we’ve seen a lot of voluntary work: a lot of people trying to build more of a dual power situation, but doing so without an ideology, without a radicalized working class or radicalized everyday people. People were trying to build a substitute state by doing a lot of volunteer-NGO-type of work.
In 2018, we saw the rise of the Sudanese Professional [Nurses] Association. Their first big intervention into the public sphere in Sudan was based on a minimum wage study. Within the second wave of the revolution of December 2018, we saw the people taking to the streets demanding bread and better health services, but at the same time waiting for some type of leadership. And so, the Professional Nurses Association was basically thrown into that situation without necessarily having the right ideology or theory, and they have been trying to lead the people in the streets.
One of the first lessons that we’ve learned is that Sudan’s Professional Association is a part of the formal economy. But at the same time, large sections of the Sudanese economy is based on the informal sector, the services sector, rather than the productive sector. Sudan’s Professional Association, although they do speak for a lot of workers, they don’t have a build-up-from-below approach.
From 2013 to 2018 and up to today, we’ve seen the rise of resistance committees based on neighborhoods and workplaces. But within these are the same groups that were trying to break away from politics, as if politics or having a radical ideology or being radicalized is frowned upon. And that’s why we’ve seen the first slogan of the revolution being “Just Fall.” It does not speak of building.
What do we want after the fall of the previous regime? Do we want socialism? Do we want state capitalism? What are we trying to achieve? We’ve seen the development of slogans, but I think one of the lessons that we need to focus on right now in Sudan, and around the world, is how to radicalize everyday people.
Everyday people are already engaged with slogans, but we need to do the work of translating the slogan into a political movement with a very clear bias towards socialism, toward building institutions from below.
To go back to the statement that I started with: It is exciting to be on the Left in Sudan. It’s also the most frustrating time because there is a lot of drift, a lot of disconnect within the Left itself. There is a lot of talk of people waiting for a revolutionary party as if that revolutionary party is going to come out of nothing or just be built overnight.
Regardless of the political parties that exist right now and that are adopting the three slogans of the revolution (whether it was the first slogan of the revolution “Just Fall,” the second slogan of “Freedom, Peace and Justice”, or the “Three No’s”: no negotiation, no compromise and no legitimacy for the Army), there is a frustration and the lack of an ability to see one’s personal struggle within the bigger struggle. This creates a disconnect that doesn’t allow a lot of room for building revolutionary organizations from below.
For example, we see this a lot within the feminist agenda. We have a younger population, whose struggle is not necessarily aligned within the larger struggle. They don’t see their struggle within the broader struggle. So, we are at risk of recreating the same mistake that happened in 2013. We are in this state of trying to radicalize based on a very clear ideology but we’re trying to build so many organizations. This will create a big disconnect within the Left and lead nowhere.
Some people think we already have a revolutionary party. Some people think that this party is not revolutionary enough. But at the same time, they’re not necessarily working to radicalize the party itself or building another alternative. If one doesn’t want to work within a given party, one can build an alternative, right?
The lesson from more than three years of the Sudanese revolution is whenever we come up with a slogan which is adopted, and has a basis in daily life, we need to do the work of [realizing] those slogans. What do we mean by “freedom,” “peace,” and “justice”? What does that mean in terms of economic policies? Are we going to break away from neo-liberal policies? Will that translate into “freedom”? What is “peace”? Do we build peace from above? Or do we build it from below through the redistribution of wealth and power to different areas within Sudan?
Sudanese demonstrators with the ‘freedom train,’a Sudanese Railways train they commandeered and rode to a mass sit-in at the General Command of the Sudanese army in Khartoum. One of the demonstrations of the Sudanese revolutions. Photo Credit: Manula Amin.
What do we mean by “justice”? Is “justice” sustainable without having “peace” and “freedom”? Whenever someone is taking to the street and chanting the slogan of “Freedom, Peace, and Justice,” that person has their own radical agenda for how we are going to [move toward] “freedom,” “peace,” and “justice.”
Whenever we have that radicalization of the slogan itself by bringing it into the daily life of the people, we are closer to a dual power situation. We are technically in a dual power situation today, but at the same time, we don’t have a strong enough revolutionary organization built from below.
Andreu Coll: The main political experience I’ll explain is the building of Podemos and why and how we left that initiative when it turned to the political mainstream.
Podemos arose from a very particular political and economic situation during the crisis of 2008. There was a very severe regime crisis here in Spain. The monarchy, the main political parties, the judiciary, and the national question were all in a very big political crisis.
Podemos had two premises. One was the indignados movement in 2011, which was a radical revolt against the economic and political system which included the main parties and unions. They joined due to the passive attitudes toward the crisis on the part of the government. The other was the Syriza hypothesis. This was a new sort of independent party, non-sectarian and independent from the socialist party, that had strong links with social movements.
We were, at the time of the indignados movement, one of the currents of the Marxist Left that had an active role in that movement. Other organized currents were very critical and denounced the movement as petty-bourgeois.
In this framework, we always insisted on the need to have, in political terms, a medium-term approach of trying to transform this revolt into a concrete program and project. From this point of view, we had to fight a double illusion. When we had the rise of the movement, we had to insist on countering a movementist, anti-party illusion; in Bensaid’s words, a social illusion – to think that the movement is enough in itself as an alternative.
On the other hand, later there was the electoralist, governist, reformist, and political illusions, as Bensaid said, when we built Podemos. In some cases, the same comrades went from one side, and then to the other. We had to bend the stick on this issue too against the careerists in the movement, and later when we built the new party.
Our role was to try to build a new radical party linked to new generations. And this was a result of an agreement with Pablo Iglesias—and his very close team of comrades—and our organization at the time. Although they later presented us only having had an interest in building with them after the initiative, this was false. We were part of the building of Podemos from the start.
The main problem was that once they met with conflict with the system, with the media, with the establishment, they had a very moderate and defensive attitude. They didn’t benefit from the strong political crisis that allowed us to build an alternative common sense, breaking with all the neoliberal prejudices that were very rooted in society at the time. Unfortunately, this moderate turn towards the right allowed other parties such as Ciudadanos to tip the balance away from Podemos, emptying any critique of neoliberal order.
One of the main critiques we held at the time was this theorization of Podemos as an electoral war machine, as both [Íñigo] Errejón and Pablo Iglesias developed at the time. They also posed a false opposition between new and old politics. This was useful against the main establishment, but it was also useful to direct criticism at a more militant left that had a more democratic procedure and internal organic existence.
In the meantime, they developed this Bonapartism, one could say, which was also opposed to internal democracy and to clearer procedures such as having proportional leadership bodies, etc. And they were constantly counterposing an electoralist urgency to a patient party of building, educating, and structuring over the medium term.
From the beginning we had these two souls in Podemos (later we would have three): the Eurocommunist view of Iglesias and his team and the more populist view of Errejón.
Our main battle was always to emphasize the centrality of a new party outside of parliament as well as the task of renewing labor and social movements as a whole. This was our main approach. Our theory and aim were the need for a broad, pluralistic movement party. We were defeated maybe because we underestimated the strength of the Bonapartist role played by the central leaders and their media influence.
But the main strategic perspective for us was to have total independence from social liberal parties (mainly the PSOE – Partido Socialista Obrera de España) and a critical balance sheet of the defeat of the Syriza government in Greece. We thought that if they had been defeated in Greece with a moderate orientation, and if we were ever to have any chance of reaching power as Podemos, the reaction of the establishment, the European Union, would be even more harsh and radical against any change.
Unfortunately, the leadership of Podemos had the total opposite view: the view that Spain is far too important to be treated in the same manner as the Greek people. So, there was no critical assessment of the lessons of Greece. Unfortunately, that accelerated the adaptation of the leadership to the political regime, accepting a capitalist economy, and the EU framework.
From then on, we had to struggle, to regroup as many comrades as possible to break away because we couldn’t have any political coherence remaining inside Podemos if they joined the government, which they eventually did.
We survived because we always struggled to maintain an independent revolutionary organization with strong strategic reference points alongside the prioritization of education through our summer universities like the Socialism conference in the U.S. We were able to engage with many new activists who didn’t share our political background but were able to understand our critiques which were always concrete, offering concrete choices and orientations, and never abstract or ideological in the worst sense of the term.
Although we were defeated, Anticapitalistas is a stronger party. We have a stronger and renewed leadership that has been able to integrate the lessons from our mistakes in Podemos. We’re more strongly rooted. We have some comrades with an important mass influence even in the media, especially Miguel Urbán and Teresa Rodriguez (the mayor of Cadiz). We have the means for real electoral capability, going further than propaganda campaigns in upcoming electoral initiatives.
The main tasks today for Anticapitalistas are to improve labor militancy in new struggles and campaigns around pensions, salaries, and against inflation, and finally to relaunch our feminist and youth activity.
Natalia Tylim:I’m going to talk about the U.S. and use the experience and some of the perspectives of the Tempest Collective to inform some of my points.
In the U.S., there’s a need to reassert a baseline argument about the need for revolutionary organization and to clarify that needing revolutionary organization doesn’t mean you do that instead of the work you’re a part of in movements, in unions at the workplace, or in broader political formations. Rather, it’s a necessary precondition of the work that we do if we want broader organizing to be able to build toward a socialist project, independent class power, and an end to this world system that is driven by the imperatives of the market and is pushing humanity and the earth itself to the precipice.
This sounds like a very basic starting point, but in the last number of years in the U.S. I’ve seen how necessary it is to clarify and assert very basic principles. Horizons matter. And some of the horizons on the U.S. Left have become very limited in the last several years.
But the horizons express themselves in day-to-day political work. And we urgently need more organized democratic spaces that bring together comrades who share a general base of politics so that we can debate perspective, strategy, and tactics. This is necessary to win people to our politics, perspectives and strategies and it is the only way we can effectively be involved in this urgent, broader work that’s going on all around us. And every one of us needs to find a way to be involved in organizing. Everywhere we are, the Tempest Collective sees ourselves as a product of the weaknesses and inroads that the last generation of the revolutionary Left faced.
Horizons matter. And some of the horizons on the U.S. Left have become very limited in the last several years.
Luis spoke to a similar dynamic: the failure of smaller, revolutionary socialist organizations to relate to and be part of the radicalization. We are a product of the explosive political openings that exist in the period since the world financial crisis of 2008. This crisis is not simply a contingent set of circumstances in the United States based on who the presidential candidates were over the last two election cycles. It’s an international phenomenon.
At the founding of the Tempest Collective in the summer of 2020, most of our membership came either from the ISO, (the International Socialist Organization) which collapsed in 2019, and from the organization Solidarity.
Two years later, about half of our membership doesn’t come from either of those organizations. A lot of the newer members have politicized more recently, either through the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), or through the George Floyd uprising and more recent touchpoints of struggle.
Those of us who come from the ISO and Solidarity have a lot to say about our experience in the revolutionary Left and the lessons and assessments we’ve taken from that. Among us there are different assessments of those experiences. It has been challenging to develop a shared assessment of what the lessons are. It has also been challenging to bring those experiences together with newer members who don’t share that same history or the same language in which older members have been trained or developed.
We’re finally beginning the process of being able to develop a more collective balance sheet of these things. We’re only at the start of this process. There is a general consensus in Tempest that whatever the factors were regarding the life (or in one case, the collapse) of our former organizations, there’s something really important that’s happening more generally (and internationally) in terms of radicalization and polarization.
Discussion of revolutionary socialist organizations was held at the Socialism Conference of 2022 in the U.S. Photo Credit: Annabella D.
We launched our website Tempestmag.org in early August of 2020. At this time, the COVID-19 pandemic had already killed 150,000 people in the U.S. The murder of George Floyd had just unleashed two months of historic multiracial, anti-racist rebellion. There were 20 million people in the streets that summer in defense of Black bodies and with openly abolitionist horizons.
We saw the natural disaster of COVID and the George Floyd rebellion as the most recent examples and expressions of this international multi-sided crisis in the U.S. These developments followed the rise of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the election of Donald Trump which were expressions of the same crises. There was the important, but episodic, rise of labor struggles with both wins and losses.
In Tempest, we didn’t see all these as U.S.-specific phenomena; they were part of an international experience that includes the debt crisis in Greece and Spain; the rebirth of reformism with a populist face like Corbyn, Melenchon, and Iglesias; the political revolutions and the subsequent reactions to them in the Middle East and North Africa; and the contradictory role of the Pink Tide governments in South America.
To understand the moment, I’ll quote from an editorial when Tempest launched:
The socialist movement in this country has not always been an outside, negligible force. For decades in the last century, it was an integral part of working class communities, politics, and struggle. It was the force which built the labor movement, which later helped, support and sustain civil rights struggles, which ensured that the New Deal concessions from the ruling class had to be made and opposed decades of bipartisan imperial policies. It was the relentless internationalism and principled opposition to all forms of oppression that made these and other victories possible. The coerced separation of our movement from our class is a wound from the middle of the last century; yet it is a live wound which makes itself felt broadly in our organizing and in our personal lives.
The editorial concluded,
If there is a single imperative which drives the Tempest project, it is not letting this opportunity be lost. The Left must lay the foundations for independent and democratic organizations of self-activity and struggle and must ensure that these organizations are deep-rooted and organically reflect and represent the working class. To do this also requires us helping re-cohere a resurgent revolutionary current.
This editorial pointed to a silver lining in a growing objective crisis we face: the growing audience for radical abolitionist, socialist, and revolutionary politics. It also points toward an issue that has followed us most of our political lives and that the Left has faced in this country for decades: the historic shortage of a class-conscious layer of fighters. Some call this the “militant minority” who can be won to socialist politics and outlooks and who would facilitate the development of a strong politically independent organization of the working class and the oppressed.
Without such a layer and without such organizations, it’s hard to imagine the type of sustained struggle that can overthrow the rule of capital. Socialists in the U.S. have not figured out how to meet the challenge of the impasse. In addition, the organizational expressions of the last generation of revolutionaries who attempted to do so have also left much to be desired.
In country after country, revolutionary organizations have split. The forces of the revolutionary Left have weakened. Organizational crises are not just about individual organizations or individual countries.
There are three things that I think are relevant lessons that require more discussion. These are issues that have often proven existential for organizations. All these underlined weaknesses in an organizational form that developed in periods of low-level defensive struggle. They hampered our ability to relate to the radicalization that was unleashed after the 2008 financial crisis. To be clear, this is not about a specific organization. Instead, these are generalizations from the revolutionary Left internationally.
First, there is a misunderstanding of the Leninist tradition, or what is meant by “Leninism.” Leninism is a rich and adaptive political tradition, but it has too often become defined as a fetishized organizational form: a bureaucratized democratic centralism. At heart, Leninism is defined by something most of us will probably find uncontroversial: that organizations should have democratic decision-making and centralized action. This notion didn’t start with Lenin. But what came to define the Leninist political tradition was a bizarre form where unity of action too often gave way to an unhealthy and uncritical unity of thinking.
Second, there has been a failure to fully grapple with and digest the dynamics around politics of gender, sexual violence, and social reproduction. Some of this consists of unresolved theoretical questions which came up during the 1970s feminist movement, but a lot of it consists of new issues that have been brought to the fore because of the ways neoliberalism produced revolutions, upheavals, and movements in response to the heightened social reproductive burden and the growth of the right.
Within our organizations, some of this crisis of sexual violence was experienced as a political opening for accountability that was never fully digested, which made it much harder to address these issues within our organizations with a common framework when they appeared. And they will continue to appear. It is not an “if” but a “when,” because they are so embedded in society. For some organizations, there’s been an effort to reject the need for a reckoning with these questions at all, seeing them as concessions to so-called “identity politics.”
Third, there’s been a failure to fully grapple with the problem of revolutionary organization, which David McNally has written about for Tempest (following Hal Draper and Duncan Hallas from earlier generations), regarding the challenges of the lack of an actual working class vanguard in all of its diversity in the United States and in much of the world. We have to start by advocating the possibility of such a vanguard instead of being able to point to what it does in its might. This is intimately tied with how we understand our goals, and how we build in a non-sectarian manner, with a modesty about what we do represents in our context as small groups of revolutionaries.
Regardless of the challenge we face of not yet having a vanguard, we need subjective revolutionaries to come together into explicitly revolutionary formations. We need revolutionaries to be organized together, not to the exclusion of the broader political work, but because of the broader political work.
Organizing with small groups of people is not the same thing as organizing in a sectarian way. On the flip side, we should not privilege small-group life over the prioritization of also building broader formations. The Left is healthier with a broad, healthy socialist milieu, and we welcome and defend that.
It’s a mistake to reject with a single stroke the broad party experiences in the U.S. DSA was an element of that broad party experience here, and we have much more to learn from other countries about this.
Organizing with small groups of people is not the same thing as organizing in a sectarian way. On the flip side, we should not privilege small-group life over the prioritization of also building broader formations. The Left is healthier with a broad, healthy socialist milieu, and we welcome and defend that.
Tempest has felt the weight of the COVID moment. For years, we’ve been limited to online forums, which are important, but which also are self-selecting and make it hard to be able to develop the type of audience that we know is out there for revolutionary politics. Moving towards more local work is where we’re starting to make inroads.
Tempest does not have it all figured out. But we believe urgently in the need to be able to address these questions and to figure them out together. We don’t think you can figure them out as individuals in the broader movement. We need more spaces like this to have these discussions and I welcome anybody who’s interested to join Tempest if this project sounds like what you’re looking for.
Luke Pickrell and Myra Janis critique the 2019 updated party program of the Communist Party, USA, arguing that the CPUSA’s continued commitment to the Popular Front produces an unwieldy document incapable of charting a strategic path forward for socialists.
Cover illustration of the Illinois CPUSA’s 1934 Election Platform
The Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2019 and signs would appear to augur well for the organization in the coming years. Recently, the party discussed running candidates for office.1 Membership numbers are rising,2 and the party credits itself and its allies for the “broad front” that defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.3Having abandoned the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization in a crisis of political direction, and gazed upon the desolate expanse that is revolutionary socialism in the United States, some comrades have turned away from the red rose toward the tried and true hammer, sickle, and gear. Unfortunately, these comrades will not have escaped the politics of class collaborationism by fleeing DSA and may find themselves in even hotter water.
The CPUSA marked its centenary with an updated version of the party platform: “The Road to Socialism USA.”4Reading through the document is daunting. An astounding 61-pages long, it meanders across ten disorganized primary sections and dozens of subsections. Boundaries are porous: the introduction contains a conclusion, ideas repeat, and lists of occasionally intriguing demands are relegated to sidebars. Friedrich Engels’ critique of the German Social Democratic Party’s Erfurt Programme – “The fear that a short, pointed exposition would not be intelligible enough, has caused explanations to be added, which make it verbose and drawn out”5 – applies just as accurately to the CPUSA. These comrades, hoping to attract as large an audience as possible, have thrown everything but the kitchen sink toward the proverbial wall in a desperate attempt to make something stick. Asked to accept the program, one struggles for solid footing. How can one determine agreement with such an incomprehensible document?
But determination brings rewards. Cutting through girth and clearing away the tired abstractions (“injustice,” “a better world,” “the 1%,” “epic struggles,” “the greed of the few,” “fascism”)6reveals two fundamental flaws: a commitment to the decades-old People’s Front policy of alliances with anything left of the “extreme right” and dedication to the Constitution and the parameters of the capitalist state. In other words, socialism with American characteristics.7 What follows is an elaboration on these two flaws. While the comrades in the CPUSA may be motivated by a genuine desire to fight for the interests of the working class, their program provides no path forward and opens the door to opportunistic zigzags and the internal rule of bureaucrats.
Continuing the People’s Front
This is far from an exhaustive chronicle of the ups and downs of the Communist Party (a job that E. J. Hobsbawm described as presenting unique difficulties).8 Rather, reading the CPUSA program allows one to reflect on the rise and fall of American Communism and the world socialist movement more generally. At its height, the Party contributed several victories to the class struggle in the United States. It carried out exceptional work in organizing the unemployed during the Great Depression and defended the Scottsboro Boys when the NAACP refused.9 The Party’s victories in states such as Alabama and New York are well-documented.10
The United Front strategy – how the party relates to the political institutions of the capitalist state to win members and strengthen the fighting power of the working class – began during a period of global defeat for communism.11 Having emerged victorious from the Russian Civil War, the newly formed Third International expected a quick succession of civil wars and Communist victories across Europe. But defeats in Germany, Poland, and Hungary augured ill. The working masses had not rallied behind the banner of the Communist Parties, and the Bolsheviks were left isolated in Russia. After fending off his ultra-left detractors, Lenin oversaw the entry of the Communist Parties into alliances with non-Communist working class political forces (including Social Democratic parties) under the explicit condition of retaining organizational independence and freedom to criticize the reformist leadership. In theory, the United Front was sound.
Principled alliances with reformist parties were scrapped when Stalin came to power. The Communists had zigged right, only to zag left during the Third Period of 1928 to 1933. The Peoples’ Front (America’s version of the Popular Front) began a final lurch back to the right in 1935 in the context of impending war and the rise of German Nazism. Ben Rose described the People’s Front as a “gradual shift towards a search for alliances and influence with the leadership of organizations believed to be instrumental in fighting domestic and international fascism, as well as those capable of pressuring the Roosevelt administration.”12Tactical alliances with a section of the capitalist class subordinated working class independence to the goals of capitalists. The goal of socialism in America was abandoned, and in 1937 the Party dropped its slogan, “Toward a Soviet America.” The day-to-day practice of fighting for reforms submerged the goal of a classless society, and socialism with American characteristics – socialism, after all, being just as American as baseball and apple pie – became the norm. As Mike Macnair explains: “‘Official communist’ and Maoist parties committed themselves to rejection of the most elementary Marxist principle – the independent political organization and representation of the working class – in favor of ‘democratic’ coalitions which repeat the projects Marx and Engels fought against – or, worse, in favor of coalitions for ‘national independence’, which subordinate the working class to the party of order.”13
The call for a People’s Front continues today. In the name of fighting the extreme right – a nefarious entity that is “inadequate and incompetent” and “backward” one moment, and “fascist” the next – the program urges unity with all progressive forces in “defeating the extreme right’s implicit and explicit drive toward fascism.”14Divisions within the capitalist class “contain opportunities for working-class and progressive forces. On some issues, the more moderate, more realistic sections of the capitalist class and their political operatives move parallel to the people’s movements, as important though partial and temporary allies. They can be pressured to adopt a more progressive stance by the strength of the people’s movements and mass sentiment.”15
The program encourages alliances with the Democratic Party because it is “not identical” with the Republican Party.16 The Democratic Party’s history – the “main vehicle used by African American and Latino communities to gain representation, as well as the main mechanism used to elect labor, progressive, and even Left activists to public office…”17 – supposedly demonstrates differences with its elephant brother. Furthermore, alleged rifts within the Party can be used to workers’ advantage. One reads: “[T]here exists an internal struggle within the Democratic Party among centrist forces who collaborate with the right wing, centrist forces opposed to the right wing, and more progressive, even socialist, trends.”18 Any desire to build a mass party must bow to the existing facts of the power of the capitalist class and the Constitutional regime.
With Friends Like These…
Calls for an alliance with the Democratic Party and the NGO complex against the far right are equivalent to asking the fox to guard the hen house: the fox eats its plump ward every time. Such proposals are the equivalent of trusting the bourgeoisie of the French Third Republic to eradicate the threat of a clerical-monarchical Thermidorian reaction. During the Third Republic, the proletariat was lured away from independent politics by liberals who incessantly hollered about a grave threat to the Republic as justification for uniting under one banner. With danger knocking at the door, this was no time to wage the class struggle. Karl Kautsky explained the reality behind the facade: “…the bourgeois liberal politicians have every interest in the struggle against the Church, but by no means in triumphing over it. They can only count on an alliance of the proletariat as long as this struggle continues.”19Ultimately, a definitive victory is illusory. The imperative to unite against a bigger-bad never ends. How ironic that the Communist Party now advocates politics far to the right of those espoused by Second International Marxism’s famous pope-turned-renegade during his period as a revolutionary thinker.
The Democratic Party is more concerned with maintaining the rule of law than prosecuting an effective campaign against an increasingly right-wing and authoritarian Republican Party and its hangers-on. See, for example, their impotent attempt to understand and resolve the events of January 6th, 2022, compared to their focus on the chauvinistic conspiracy theory of Russiagate. The state’s repressive apparatus is far more concerned with countering perceived threats from the left than from the right. The bourgeois state fundamentally cannot grapple with the real social issues (poverty and economic precarity, first and foremost) upon which the seeds of far-right extremism germinate. Without class independence, the proletariat stays moored to the dock of bourgeois politics. Worse, if the working class does not create independent organizations of political power, it will be unable to stop a real fascist threat. One finds a terrifying historical specter in Chile during the Allende period when the Popular Unity government disarmed its supporters in the face of an impending coup. When the time came, the working class could not defend itself or the Allende government from Pinochet’s forces.
The CPUSA program describes the all-people’s-front as an “essential strategy for this historical period, not just a temporary tactic.”20 Socialism is thus always something for the distant future, a goal to pursue once the present task is complete. Yet, like Sisyphus and his boulder, the task is never concluded. An all-people’s-front will not permanently defeat the far right. Only a socialist republic can eliminate the excrement produced by capitalism in decline, and only a socialist political party can make a new republic a reality.
Bill of Rights Socialism and Constitutional Cultism
The Constitution is an eminently undemocratic document that stands in the way of working-class political rule. It creates an entire “political playing field”that sucks in well-intentioned reformers and keeps them busy fiddling over minutia.21 The Constitution cannot be ignored or corralled through tricks or slights of hand. Yet, the CPUSA program ducks the issue by proposing a “Peoples’ Bill of Rights” and explaining that “Once the power of the corporations is broken, the vast majority of the country can use the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, a Socialist Bill of Rights, and local governments to build real democracy and equality.”22The Party’s belief that a “fundamentally new economic system” can be built on the existing Constitution is explicit; it is a hallowed document equivalent to the sacred tablets of the Ten Commandments. This devotion is apparent when they describe a speculative people’s Bill of Rights as “guaranteed” upon being “enshrined” in the Constitution.23
The insistence on maintaining the existing state apparatus is an abdication of the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Once in power, the party must implement the minimum demands to upend and transform the existing state apparatus into a democratic republic – the state form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. From this position, the working class can begin the transition to communism. The CPUSA comrades are correct that the fullest expression of democracy is in the interests of the working class. Democracy is the light and air needed by the proletariat to wage an effective struggle.
However, the extension of democracy does not cease at the doors of the White House, the shrine of the Constitution, the halls of the Supreme Court, or the pentagonal grounds of the Department of Defense. The indirectly elected president holds an ever-increasing amount of power and directs the military of the world’s foremost imperial power. The Constitution (designed to guard against change) enshrines the separation of powers to hedge against the boogeyman of popular will in the House of Representatives (the only body with a nominal claim to popular representation) and slows down the process of legislation by directly elected representatives. The Supreme Court is not elected by universal and direct suffrage and works primarily to defend the Constitution. The recent overturning of Roe v. Wade also led many people to question the Court’s ability to take up lower court rulings. Finally, the Department of Defense provides the physical force necessary to safeguard the sanctity of private property and bourgeois law and order.
The CPUSA’s loyalty to the Constitution leads them to abandon a revolutionary position. The demand for a Socialist Bill of Rights leaves the bourgeois state unscathed; in fact, it strengthens the state. So long as the existing constitutional order remains intact, demands for “liberty, and equality; free quality health care and education; living-wage jobs and decent housing; and a healthy environment”are just reforms.24 While the revolutionary party does include reforms as part of its demands, they exist as a means to create a democratic republic. A set of demands that leave the existing state intact serves only as a screen to hide bourgeois rule. The party plucks the fig leaf from absolutism only to become “oneself a screen for its nakedness.”25
In trying to adapt Marxist-Leninism to the United States, the comrades have absorbed all the elements of the constitutional regime and dropped most of the Marxism they carried. What little remains lies mutilated beyond recognition. The program’s assurance that “socialism in the United States will have distinctive characteristics because it will emerge from our unique political culture”is just another superficial justification for reformism.26 Minimum demands must strengthen the working class while weakening the state. Such demands include a single legislative assembly elected by proportional representation; the abolition of the independent presidency and the Supreme Court’s right of judicial review; the election of judges and other state officials; the expansion of jury trials and state-funded legal services; the unrestricted right of free speech; the abolition of copyright laws and monopolies of knowledge; and the abolition of police and standing army in favor of a people’s militia characterized by universal training and service, with democratic rights for its members. The process could begin with organizing a nationwide election via direct, universal, and equal suffrage for an assembly tasked with writing a new Constitution for popular consideration rather than the radically minoritarian process enshrined in Article 5 of the existing Constitution.27 Enacted in full, these demands smash the existing order and create a democratic republic.
Monopolies and Stages
Like a Matryoshka doll that has gone west, the CPUSA program contains multiple programs corresponding to different stages on an imagined path to socialism. The first stage is the formation of a People’s Front to defeat the extreme right. After eliminating the first threat, the People’s Front will grow in strength, evolve into an anti-monopoly coalition, and turn its attention toward “the multinationals” (the nationalist assumption being that ‘genuinely American’ capitalists would join the fight). The defeat of the multinationals will signal the beginning of a new stage in which the anti-monopoly coalition will build proletarian consciousness and progress toward socialism. Multiple coalitions will merge with the Communist Party to create a force capable of pushing through the Socialist Bill of Rights. At some point, communism will emerge.
To the untrained eye, the discussion of monopolies is a bizarre aspect of an already strange program. Yet, references to the despotic power of monopolies – along with constant references to “the people” – have roots in older forms of American populism that pitted “the people” versus “the elites.” The affinity towards populist rhetoric is explained by the reformist character of the CPUSA and its desire to create cross-class alliances in which, ultimately, workers’ interests play second fiddle. In addition, the program’s conception of revolution beginning only after defeating a series of foes follows the stagist theory of history often, though incorrectly, attributed to orthodox Marxism.28 In decades past, the stagist model was used to justify the fundamental impossibility of communism in one country. Today, it appears in the CPUSA’s program as a justification for continued reformism.
Road to Nowhere
The Communist Party’s program contains noble sentiments. We do not doubt these comrades’ desire to realize a “system in which working-class people control their own lives and destinies.”29 Socialism is the fullest extension of democracy. The social republic overcomes the division between social and political existence. The final goal remains a society in which everyone contributes what they can and receives what they need to actualize their unique potential.
The CPUSA comrades are correct in declaring the need for a revolutionary party. They correctly state that victory is not abstract: it “relies not on slogans, gimmicks, or conspiracies but rather on developing the understanding of millions cultivated in hard struggles, an understanding that grows into full class and socialist consciousness.”30 Yet, their program is brimming with slogans. Take the assertion that the revolutionary party must be “dedicated to the interests of the whole class, dedicated to the long-term vision necessary for winning fundamental change.”31 An intrepid reader finishes the program without understanding the meaning of fundamental change. After so many pages, the phrase remains a floating signifier capable of the most opportunistic interpretations. This reversion to obscurity is a long way away from the concluding paragraph of the Socialist Party of America’s 1912 program: “Such measures of relief as we may be able to force from capitalism are but a preparation of the workers to seize the whole powers of government, in order that they may thereby lay hold of the whole system of socialized industry and thus come to their rightful inheritance.”32 As a party founded by the principled Left-Wing of the SPA and once animated by the fire of the Bolshevik Revolution, the CPUSA has fallen quite a long way.
The program is the loadstone of a socialist political party. A good program presents the demands necessary for taking power and creating a democratic republic (the minimum program) to initiate a transition to the ultimate goal of communism (the maximum program). Means and ends are united and never lose sight of each other. Demands are expansive though concrete, and resonate with the condition of all oppressed minority groups. Furthermore, a good program is clear, concise, and memorable. It leaves elaboration to party propagandists and trusts in the ability of the masses to decode an unfamiliar term and infer what is left unsaid. The latest CPUSA program is a mess. Quantity does not transform into quality; in this case, the former works against the latter. The working class will not find a road to power within its numerous pages. Its confusing proposals will lead only to the underwhelming and all-too-familiar dead end of class collaboration within the existing constitutional order.
Today, the Communist Party USA rests upon a mixed historical legacy marked by moments in which it acted as a vanguard of the working class in the highest sense of the phrase, as well as a long period in which it continues to be plagued by the lowest possible opportunism. In criticizing its present class collaborationist program, we hope to provide a resource to those in the Communist Party chafing under this orientation. As in the Democratic Socialists of America, the time has come for genuine communists to rebel against the dominant opportunism of the largest organizations of the working class political movement in the United States. We encourage Marxists in the Communist Party USA to begin openly discussing the course and future of their party and the entire socialist movement. The pages of Cosmonaut are open to them, and replies from defenders of the Communist Party’s current orientation are welcome as well – if only to train the arguments of their critics.
John Womack is well-known in the United States as one of the foremost historians of the Mexican revolution, as the author of the seminal Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. However, his writings on strategic sectors and strategic workers have not received the same attention. In the current organizing upsurge, Womack’s thoughts on these subjects, which he shares in the new book, Labor Power and Strategy, have a lot to offer a new generation of union activists seeking to run smart, strategic, and effective campaigns.
And fortunately, in our just-in-time, next-day delivery, consumer economy, there is no shortage of opportunities for identifying chokepoints and taking advantage of supply chain issues to build labor’s power and promote solidarity. As one of the editors and a contributor to the book, we hope that this short volume will help workers and organizers at Amazon, Starbucks, or any other exploitative employer think about how to maximize worker power.
PORTS AND RAILS: KEY NODES
The passage last year of the Ocean Shipping and Reform Act has empowered the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) to make new and revised regulations to control the movement of goods in the nation’s ports. The members of the FMC appointed by President Biden are grappling with ways to expedite the flow of goods economically with particular attention to the plight of domestic agricultural producers who cannot get space on outbound ships. At the same time the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is engaged in coastwise negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association for a new contract covering dockworkers in the 29 west coast ports. The current agreement expired last July 1.
Last fall, tremendous attention was placed on the negotiations between the twelve rail unions and the seven “Class I” freight railroads, which eventually resulted in a settlement imposed by Congress.
The media spotlight shone brightly on these two key nodes in the global supply chain. However, concern for workers in the public discourse extends only so far as to how their work impacts consumers and profits. Labor organizers, dedicated to building working class power, must look at the same “choke points” and strategize as to how workers through their unions can take advantage of these positions to amplify their collective influence.
Looking along the same supply chain, workers at two Amazon fulfillment centers, one in Bessemer, Alabama, and the other on Staten Island in New York City are similarly attempting to gain collective power at strategic choke points. Amazon “fulfillment” centers are not new age self-actualization salons, but giant, million-square-feet facilities that stow, store, and pick thousands of products for shipment to Amazon sortation and delivery centers in the e-commerce chain leading to the “last mile” of delivery. These facilities each employ upwards of 5,000 workers on three shifts and use a combination of manual labor and robots to move product to random spots in the warehouse. When an order for a product arrives, they are accessed using artificial intelligence and sophisticated algorithms for shipping fulfillment.
In the spring of 2021, after an aggressive campaign of harassment and intimidation by management, workers at the mammoth Bessemer fulfillment center voted against union representation with the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union (RWDSU). Amazon management committed so many blatant unfair labor practices that the NLRB ordered a new election. The second vote in March 2022 was much closer, but inconclusive, pending litigation to resolve the eligibility of challenged ballots that will determine the outcome. RWDSU also filed 23 objections with the NLRB regarding management’s conduct during the second election.
On Staten Island, the independent Amazon Labor Union shocked the world last April after winning the first union election at Amazon. It was the largest election win in the private sector since the Smithfield pork processing victory in Tar Heel, North Carolina, in 2008, which is covered in a chapter in Labor Power and Strategy by campaign organizer Gene Bruskin.
WHO CAN JAM UP THE WORKS?
Labor strategists grappling with the future of organizing at Amazon know that an NLRB election victory, while an important step, is not the end game or even the only path to winning recognition. Regardless, how will Amazon workers negotiate a first contract that achieves the rights and benefits once they achieve recognition?
Given the weakness of U.S. labor law, the ability to win that first contract is a question of power. For workers, exerting power in a workplace is often understood simply to be the ability to paralyze production with a strike.
But a strike may not have sufficient member support or even be the best tactic. In fact, it might play into an employer’s hands. A strike in the off-season could benefit the employer by closing down the operation in a period when less work is required. A strike at one facility could be ineffective if a large employer is able to shift production, inventory, or delivery to another facility within their production system.
Conversely, the question needs to be asked whether a strike that closes an entire facility is actually necessary. What if certain workers hold the key to jamming up the works because of their skill, expertise and/or strategic position? Who writes the algorithms crucial to Amazon’s overnight delivery system? Who repairs the robots?
These are only a few examples of the strategic questions that Womack encourages workers looking to build power at Amazon (or any other major employer) to ask.
Womack’s analysis builds on previous work by left-wing organizers like William Z. Foster (Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry) and John Steuben (Strike Strategy), who wrote useful treatises on organizing and strike strategy that also dealt with the question of “strategic workers.”
The interviews with Womack published in Labor Power and Strategy are based on insights on labor strategy from a paper he first delivered in Helsinki, Finland, in 2006. It was later translated into Spanish and published in Mexico, but has yet to be published in English.
In the paper, Womack writes,
modern divisions of labor, however they change in modern economies, have some technically ‘strategic positions’ in them. Wherever these positions may be, shifting as they may, what makes them strategically important is that work there (skilled or not) matters much more than work in other positions (skilled or not), because it holds a division of labor technically together, in production. If work there stops, this forces extensive disruption of work elsewhere. And if the disruption happens in an industry ‘strategic’ in production at large, this forces disruption across the entire economy, even internationally.
Labor Power and Strategy provides an extensive interview with him where he expands on these themes of strategic workers and economic sectors. Following the interview, 10 contemporary labor strategists respond to Womack’s perspectives (the list: Gene Bruskin, Carey Dall, Dan DiMaggio of Labor Notes, Katy Fox-Hodess, Bill Fletcher Jr., Jane McAlevey, Jack Metzgar, Joel Ochoa, Melissa Shetler, and Rand Wilson.)
Our hope is that the book will serve as a guide to discussing and discovering leverage points useful to workers seeking power. As Labor Notes’ book Secrets of a Successful Organizer puts it: “Every boss has a weak spot. Find and use it.” We think that Womack’s insights can be helpful in thinking about these vulnerable spots and identifying places where the labor movement might want to concentrate its forces.
An excerpt from the Womack interview is applicable to thinking about labor strategy for dockers, railroad workers, and Amazon warehouse employees:
So in this kind of struggle, on supply chains, on industrial and technical exchanges, these sorts of connection, I want to argue hard that labor needs network analysis to see where its industrial and technical power is. It needs to know where the crucial industrial and technical connections are, the junctions, the intersections in space and time, to see how much workers in supply or transformation can interrupt, disrupt, where and when in their struggles they can stop the most capitalist expropriation of surplus value.
Womack’s reflections are broad, ranging from workers on the Mexican railroads to auto workers in Tennessee and Mississippi. He encourages his readers to unravel the employer’s “seam” of production to locate the weak links where labor’s power can be most effectively exercised. Many of the contributors challenge us to also think also about the broader public and community landscape that production takes place in. The book ends with concluding remarks from Womack in response to the contributors.
Peter Olney is retired organizing director of the Longshore Workers (ILWU) and a co-editor, with Glenn Perusek, of Labor Power and Strategy. Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than 40 years.
In the dominant liberal political imaginary, fascist and far-right movements are framed as problems of hate and extremism. The global extremism industry – a network of government ministries, intelligence agencies, military and police forces, university research centers, think tanks, media outlets, and government-oriented NGOs – dutifully serves the ruling class by occluding liberalism’s complicity with fascism by placing antifascist movements on an extremism spectrum that also includes violent fascist formations, a mystification aimed at policing the Left and criminalizing antifascists. More