A New Socialist Left?: Interview with Pham Binh (Part II)

This is the second part of an interview with independent socialist Pham Binh. In the first part, Binh was asked to discuss his ideas about Occupy and how socialists responded to the new movement. Here we continue the conversation to talk about some of the political implications of his analysis, tying together some organizational theory with his assessment of the moment. The links in the body of the article are provided by the interviewee. -AS

Let’s change gears a little and talk about some of your ideas about socialist politics. A key focus of yours is about how Occupy is an opportunity for the revival of the far left—ideally the socialist left. What do you see in Occupy that creates this possibility? What sorts of things do you think socialists should be doing in the movement?

Occupy, its offshoots, and the unrelated initiatives it inspired will drive radical politics for the rest of this decade. This on its own ought to make Occupy central to any strategy aimed at making American socialism the political powerhouse it was in the first half of the 20th century.

In terms of the socialist left and the possibilities we face, socialists have to seamlessly integrate, fuse, and merge with Occupy and its offshoots (despite our own frustration with its prevailing ideas and methods as well as its current weakness). That is the indispensable precondition for helping Occupy outgrow its comfort zone and expand its active base of participants from thousands to tens of thousands.

What we need is full-fledged, well-rounded participation, which means bringing a pro-worker orientation into non-labor working groups, a revolutionary orientation into electoral reform working groups, a Roberts Rules orientation into facilitation working groups, an anti-capitalist orientation into financial reform groups, and an anti-elitist orientation into adventurist Black Bloc milieus for example. And when I say “orientation,” I don't mean just ideological arguments but concrete proposals, tactics, actions, and slogans that reflect our orientation and facilitate motion in the direction we prefer. We must engage Occupy on Occupy's terms if we hope to wield any influence within it.

How all this plays out locally and individually in terms of how comrades choose to spend their political time will vary, especially since Occupy now is so uneven. Since I've developed a reputation as a writer, I write and help others write; musically inclined comrades could start Occupy bands and do renditions of classics like “Which Side Are You On?” as the Rude Mechanical Orchestra has; the diplomats among us should facilitate; the comedians among us could do guerilla theatre or political improv. The field for new initiatives is wide open and comrades should pursue their interests and harness their talents for the great aims that we and Occupy have in common. Whatever we do, we should strive to be creative, comradely, collaborative, open-minded, experimental, ambitious, fun, and funny. Act less like "professional revolutionaries" and more like Wobblies.

We should try to get occupiers to run for (and win) local offices, so put Scott Olson on the Green Party ballot against Mayor Jean Quan in Oakland or Sergeant Shamar Thomas on the Green Party ballot against Christine Quinn in the 2013 New York City mayoral race. That would give us a way rally occupiers, liberals, progressives, nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations, union members, and oppressed groups behind a candidate (and a party). Socialists should champion political action as a form of and complement to direct action within and through Occupy. That's how Eugene Debs and his comrades built the mighty Socialist Party and that’s how SYRIZA in Greece was built as well – one foot in the streets, one foot in the halls of government, both marching forward to fight the 1%.

If we don't find a way to occupy elections, and with them, the levers of state power, independently of the two capitalist parties, we will throw away a historic opportunity to entrench resistance to the 1% just as our predecessors did in the 1960s. This mistake made it comparatively easy for the ruling class to turn the tide and take back the ground they conceded to the feminist, civil rights, gay liberation, anti-war, and environmentalist movements. They faced no institutional obstacles or concerted resistance to the offensive they launched in the 1970s.

One reference that you seem to make a lot is to the work of the academic Lars Lih, who wrote a series of books about Lenin and the Bolsheviks, reframing the history and trying to investigate some of the mythology around these giant figures. Can you explain this some? What do you think are the implications of this writing politically?

In summer of 2011, I had a dispute that led me to take a closer look at how the Bolsheviks organized, their expectations of members, how they elected leadership bodies, and their rules to enforce transparency and accountability. (At that point I had not read any of Lars Lih's work.) What I discovered (to my surprise) were drastic differences between what I thought were practices and traditions based on the Bolshevik experience and the actual methods Lenin and the Bolsheviks used.

I stumbled into the contradiction at the heart of "Leninism" – neither Lenin nor the Bolsheviks organized in a "Leninist" manner. The Bolsheviks were always part of a broader multi-tendency party, the very model "Leninists" today reject as bankrupt and doomed to failure. Efforts to create exclusively revolutionary parties and movements after 1917 have all ended in failure without exception, including the Communist International, which moved in an opportunist direction from the mid-1920s onward.

Every mass movement, including the socialist movement, develops revolutionary and opportunist wings the larger, more powerful, and more popular it becomes. The reality is that we can't get Luxemburg without Bernstein, Lenin without Dan, Debs without Berger. Trying to exclude opportunists or reformists a priori prohibits the development of these tendencies and their dynamic conflict. These were conclusions I came to before reading Lih's work in fall of 2011, right before OWS broke out in front of my eyes.

By putting Lenin back into his proper social-democratic context, Lih definitively undermined the idea that the Bolsheviks were somehow special, superior to, or doing something fundamentally different from the German Social Democratic Party that pioneered the model Lenin and the Bolsheviks copied. Recently, Lih discovered that the Bolsheviks never became a party. That was news to me but is indisputable once you study the facts, the history, and Lenin's writings closely.

To sum up: the problem with trying to copy the model of the Bolshevik Party is that there was no such thing as the Bolshevik Party! The organizational implications of Lih's work and, from a different direction, my writing is the same: revolutionaries should build thoroughly inclusive, multi-tendency parties that use every available means to agitate, to stir people into action, to permanently and effectively campaign for reforms, and spread the good news.

One of your more provocative perspectives has been about socialist organization. It seems like you suggest a kind of unique or “unorthodox” route to building a socialist left in the United States. Can you paint in this picture somewhat? What about your ideas on a building the left are similar and different from the classic “party-building” perspective?

The classic party-building model, the one Lenin inherited from German social democracy (which put into practice Karl Marx's merger formula), is unfortunately not the model used by the American socialist left. In business terms, our model resembles a pyramid scheme which explains our inability to grow at a faster rate than one by one or become influential even when objective circumstances become favorable and mass movements break out as they did in 1999 (global justice), 2002-2003 (anti-war), 2006 (immigrants' rights), and 2011-present (Occupy and other initiatives). This is the basic problem with our boat and why it barely moves no matter how hard the wind blows our way.

As the pessimists like to endlessly repeat, engineering a merger of two or three of the existing groups in and of itself would not change much. The pessimists are right on this point but for the wrong reasons. Adding small forces together to create a slightly bigger small force is not meaningless; the successful regroupment initiatives overseas (particularly the Left Bloc in Portugal) began this way and took the better part of a decade to grow and mature. The reason a merger would not necessarily lead to anything new is because the underlying model of the merged formation would remain the same in its essentials.

While this model worked to preserve the socialist left from disintegrating over the past three decades (and may have been entirely appropriate), it is without a doubt a barrier to us reaching our full potential now. These days, for every player we have “in the field” of organized socialists we have three or four “on the bench,” meaning they are not members of any group and will remain independent until we get our act together and forge a party worthy of the name that inspires their loyalty, confidence, and trust. What would inspire our benchwarmers to get up and jump into the game is a single, united team worth playing for with a fighting chance to win real gains.

Anyone who is serious about revolutionary politics has to wrestle with how to inspire people to mobilize, to act. The old social democratic model that inspired Lenin and the Bolsheviks that Lih brought to light can and should be updated and inform our practice today. Like Lenin, we should be hell-bent on uniting our disparate forces and creating an effective national organization in order to replace the ineffective, local, parochial division of labor we have now that consumes our meager resources.

You make reference to some contemporary experiments on the far left: Britain’s Anticapitalist Initiative (ACI) and SYRIZA in Greece. What about these projects, which are very different, are worth emulating?

What isn't worth emulating about these initiatives? The left and the fight against austerity are most advanced in places where there is the kind of pluralistic multi-tendency radical political formations that the American socialist movement has stubbornly refused to create. In Greece, it's SYRIZA; in France, it's the Left Front; in Quebec, it's Quebec Solidaire; in Germany, it's Die Linke; in Portugal, it’s the Left Bloc; in Britain, it's ACI (which is only a few months old and tiny in terms of numbers and influence as a result). Where is the American equivalent? Why are we not trying to knit together the constituent elements that could constitute such a project here?

"Conditions are totally different here," is the usual response I hear, as if I wasn't aware that we don't have mass workers' parties here or a parliamentary democracy. The fact is these initiatives are more like the classic party-building model and far more effective than our recruit-recruiters model. Whatever their flaws, these initiatives are relevant to the shape of their national political landscape and capable of real qualitative change, development, and growth. We have yet to achieve even marginal relevance, so we should try to learn something from them instead of one-sidedly focusing on their shortcomings.

The failed recall effort in Wisconsin is the bitter fruit of our long-standing failure to create an alternative political vehicle to the Democratic Party. If we want something other than a perpetually divided socialist left that is too weak to even significantly influence the direction of a weakened Occupy (much less wrest political hegemony over the political action of our unions from the Democratic Party), then we have to start doing something different.

Prior to the May 6 election in Greece, SYRIZA was something between a full-blown political party and what is usually called a "united front," a sort of proto-party formation that evidently used consensus to keep its Trotskyist, Maoist, Eurocommunist, and non-ideological movement elements together instead of forcibly binding them in a "democratic centralist" fashion. If America's socialist groups ever make a good-faith effort along similar lines, I think some type of "soft" or consensus-based decision-making process would be the way to go since all too often a 50%-plus-1 vote leads to 50%-minus-1 quitting and leaving due to trickery, fraud, overly acrimonious disputes, or all three. We are so small, weak, and marginal that we cannot afford or tolerate things like that, especially in the embryo stage of a unity initiative.

Lastly, tell us about the North Star. What is the project and what are you aiming to do?

The North Star is an attempt to facilitate unity on the anti-capitalist left through debate, discussion, and collaboration. The socialist left lacks a common forum, which is why much of our debates happen on an Australian Web site (Links) or on personal blogs like Unrepentant Marxist.

Our groups generally do not engage their "competitors" politically, to say nothing of trends "outside" socialism like anarchism. Lots of socialist groups hail the Russian newspaper Iskra Lenin started but refuse to follow its example. For starters, it wasn't sold, it was free. More importantly, over the course of a three-year campaign, Iskra fought to weld all trends within Russian Marxism into a single party, including the economists, who were often the targets of Iskra’s polemics. When people disagreed with Iskra, their letters were published in full so readers could make up their own minds in debates over who was right. Iskra combined irreconcilable ideological struggle with a struggle to create practical unity in spite of those disagreements, something The North Star hopes to emulate.

All of this is a means to an end. We have more than enough talk shops on the left. The North Star's goal is to engender enduring multi-tendency relationships where none exist and thereby create the basis for a broad-based united radical or anti-capitalist organization down the road.

Anyone interested in collaborating on The North Star project should email thenorthstar.info@gmail.com. No one can do everything but everyone can do something. The socialist left desperately needs multimedia content, especially videos and memes, and I hope The North Star can be a place where we begin to develop those elements as well.

Occupy and the Left

Binh: "The ISO is having it's big national conference in Chicago at the same time as Occupy is having its first national gathering in Philadelphia"

Yes, and the flip side of that equation, is Occupy is having it's national conference in Philadelphia, the SAME time as the ISO is having it's conference in Chicago.

spreading our influence = fruitless?

"The few socialist groups that I am aware of have small memberships and to spread themselves out in the manner described about would be, in my opinion, fruitless."

Merging the socialist movement with Occupy and spreading our influence throughout it would be fruitless if the goal is to continue perpetuating the small socialist groups in their current (ineffective) form. All groups face a choice between self-perpetuation and broadening their influence because they cannot do both in their current form.

"Two, given the large size of Occupy, it would seem to me logical that socialists should concentrate exactly at the point where the movement and the working class, organized and nonorganized are rubbing up against one another..."

Sounds like the Occupy version of the Jack Barnes strategy.

Socialist groups that bet their house on labor and union work in the 1970s by and large did not even live to see Occupy, and the unions they were in got hammered.

We should spread our eggs across many baskets rather than picking the basket that has the most holes in it.

David Berger: The few

David Berger: The few socialist groups that I am aware of have small memberships and to spread themselves out in the manner described about would be, in my opinion, fruitless.

Pham Binh: Merging the socialist movement with Occupy and spreading our influence throughout it would be fruitless if the goal is to continue perpetuating the small socialist groups in their current (ineffective) form.

David Berger: It's not clear what you mean by "merging." Are you actually advocating that socialist organizations that are currently involved with OWS cease to exsst and, instead, their members functions as individuals? And, in this way, how would their influence spread? Are you avocting the action of autonomous socialist individuals as opposed to members of socialist organizations? The goal is not perpetuate the groups, Comrade. The goal is to spread socialist praxis.

Pham Binh: All groups face a choice between self-perpetuation and broadening their influence because they cannot do both in their current form.

David Berger: Considering the fact that as I write this, socialist groups are perpetuating themselves and broadening their influence within Occupy, I guess you're just dead wrong.

David Berger: Two, given the large size of Occupy, it would seem to me logical that socialists should concentrate exactly at the point where the movement and the working class, organized and nonorganized are rubbing up against one another..."

Pham Binh: Sounds like the Occupy version of the Jack Barnes strategy.

David Berger: No, it's the strategy that was developed, basically, by the IS in the 60s and 70s. But it's typical of your snarky attitude that you'd drag in the zombie of Jack Barnes, instead of the example of people like Steve Zeluck.

Pham Binh: Socialist groups that bet their house on labor and union work in the 1970s by and large did not even live to see Occupy, and the unions they were in got hammered.

David Berger: Your ignorance of Left history here is either willful or massive. The three main socialist groups that I'm aware of in Occupy, ISO, SA and Solidarity, and we might add Labor Notes, are very much alive. Why, I wonder, are you lying when you know quite well that this is true. As to the unions getting hammered, all unions in the US got hammered. Would a "correct" socialist line such as you might have come up with stopped that process?

Pham Binh: We should spread our eggs across many baskets rather than picking the basket that has the most holes in it.

BTW: For anyone who is going to the National Gathering of Occupy, in Philadelphia, June 30 - July 3, the Labor Alliance of Occupy Wall Street is holding a forum on July 1 on Occupy and Labor. Check the published schedule for location.

David Berger: Go and do it, Binh. What group in Occupy Wall Street are you in carrying out your program?

cells, not branches

"It's not clear what you mean by 'merging.' Are you actually advocating that socialist organizations that are currently involved with OWS cease to exsst and, instead, their members functions as individuals? And, in this way, how would their influence spread? Are you avocting the action of autonomous socialist individuals as opposed to members of socialist organizations? The goal is not perpetuate the groups, Comrade. The goal is to spread socialist praxis."

Concretely this would mean doing away with the geographically-based branch structures in favor of small cells of 2-10 comrades working within each working group (or other body, G.A., spokescouncil, newspaper publishing groups). This would more closely resemble the structure that the Comintern recommended for parties in its early years than anything on the left today.

If the 100-200 organized socialists in New York City opted for this route, we'd have almost 2-5 people in every OWS and outer borough Occupy working group and have a real chance at developing influence over the 1,000-2,000 who are the vanguard of Occupy.

As it stands now, we abstain from over 80% of Occupy's initiatives if not more.

"Considering the fact that as I write this, socialist groups are perpetuating themselves and broadening their influence within Occupy, I guess you're just dead wrong."

The ISO is having it's big national conference in Chicago at the same time as Occupy is having its first national gathering in Philadelphia. Hard to recruit people in Chicago if they're all in Philadelphia.

Oh Really? Have You Tried It?

Pham Binh: What we need is full-fledged, well-rounded participation, which means bringing a pro-worker orientation into non-labor working groups, a revolutionary orientation into electoral reform working groups, a Roberts Rules orientation into facilitation working groups, an anti-capitalist orientation into financial reform groups, and an anti-elitist orientation into adventurist Black Bloc milieus for example. And when I say “orientation,” I don't mean just ideological arguments but concrete proposals, tactics, actions, and slogans that reflect our orientation and facilitate motion in the direction we prefer. We must engage Occupy on Occupy's terms if we hope to wield any influence within it.

David Berger: Two brief points. One, the vast majority of left-wing groups are basically ignoring Occupy and hoping it will go away. This includes the Maoist and Stalinist groups. The few socialist groups that I am aware of have small memberships and to spread themselves out in the manner described about would be, in my opinion, fruitless.

Two, given the large size of Occupy, it would seem to me logical that socialists should concentrate exactly at the point where the movement and the working class, organized and nonorganized are rubbing up against one another: in the labor-oriented groups. In New York, this is the Labor Alliance, which consists of, basically, seven groups, Immigrant Workers for Justice, Labor Outreach, Arts and Labor, Occupy the Department of Education, Organize Your Workplace, the Rank and File Committee and 99 Pickets (not formally in the Labor Alliance but made up of people from Labor Alliance groups).

For people who are conscious socialists to spread themselves out into he myriad of groups that Occupy has given birth to is, in my experience, to get lost. I notice, Binh, that, as far as I know, you are not currently in any working group in New York. Correct me if I'm wrong. And you have referred to one of the working groups that has in fact a large number of active socialists, the Labor Outreach Committee, as a "red ghetto."

Enough for now. This debate should go on.

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