Another Comment on FRSO/OSCL’s Which Way is Left?

Posted June 3, 2008


[This contribution was originally presented to a November 18, 2007 joint meeting of Solidarity, Freedom Road Socialist Organization/OSCL and an independent study group of activists interested in revolutionary organization]

Like most members of Solidarity, I welcome the new pamphlet from the comrades in Freedom Road, Which Way is Left? I agree with the general thrust of the pamphlet. We share much of Freedom Road’s thinking about the need to embrace new ideas and practices—especially developing a non-reductionist understanding of patriarchy and racism/national oppression. I also find important points of unity on the nature of socialism, and on revolutionary organization in the 21st century.

I share Freedom Road’s rejection of bureaucratic, single-party dictatorships as anti-socialist. Socialism—the democratic rule of working people—requires, at the minimum, the possibility of working and oppressed people to form a multiplicity of parties; and freedom of press, speech and assembly for all organizations that do not take up arms against a revolutionary regime.

Solidarity and Freedom Road also share a vision of the socialist organization that we need to build in the US today. Both of our organizations reject “vanguardism”—building small, programmatically pure groupings that pretend they are the nucleus of a mass revolutionary organization.

Both organizations want a process of “left refoundation” or “socialist regroupment” that will build a broad revolutionary organization rooted among activists in the workplaces, oppressed communities, and the anti-war movement. Both Freedom Road and Solidarity want a “multi-tendency” organization—where internal debate and discussion is a source of the organization’s vitality and capacity to act collectively.

I believe that the process of left refoundation/socialist regroupment should proceed along two lines. First, and most important, is common practice. Forces exploring the possibility of building new revolutionary organizations need to see if they can actually work together in real struggles. Such experience is a necessary condition for building trust and respect.

We should seek out ways to work together, in the labor movement (building for the Labor Notes conference this April), building organizations of immigrant workers (especially workers’ centers), supporting struggles of workers of color (like FUREE [Families United for Racial and Economic Equality – based in Brooklyn] organizing among child care providers) and maintaining an independent anti-war movement during the 2008 elections (Iraq Veterans Against the War’s Winter Soldier Investigations scheduled for March 2008 may provide an important opportunity).

The second path toward left refoundation/socialist regroupment is on-going, comradely political discussions. Often the distinctive languages of our different traditions have obscured what we actually agree and disagree about. We need to hammer out a “common political vocabulary” that will allow us to stop talking past one another. Such a process requires patience, commitment, and respect.

I hope that meetings like this here in NY and around the country can begin that process. We also hope to organize other national, jointly organized events in the future.

One of the questions I believe needs to be discussed is the role of reformism in working class and popular struggles. I think we would all agree that reformism is not the same thing as the struggle for reforms. Any revolutionary who rejects struggles for immediate improvements under capitalism — reforms — is doomed to political irrelevance.

In my opinion, what distinguishes revolutionaries and reformists is how they understand the workings of capitalism (theory) and how they organize to win reforms (strategy). For reformists, a neutral state can regulate capitalism to promote both rising profits for capital and social and economic gains for workers and oppressed people. Reformists have traditionally looked to electing progressive politicians (either in independent social-democratic parties or in “progressive” capitalist parties like the US Democrats), and the establishment of legally regulated collective bargaining between employers and unions as the way to win and defend reforms.

Revolutionaries, on the other hand, understand that capitalism makes the class struggle a zero-sum game. Gains for workers come at the expense of capitalist competitiveness and profitability. Reforms are won through militant mass strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, and the like. Such struggles involve large-scale defiance of the law, and forge ties of active solidarity among working people. When such mass movements decline and capitalists face sharpening competition and falling profits, they roll-back reforms in order to improve the conditions of accumulation.

Clearly, all of us reject reformist theory and strategy. All of us agree that the class struggle is a zero-sum game, and that gains are made through mass struggle.

However, since the mid 1930s, a significant sector of the revolutionary left have advocated long-term strategic alliances with the forces of official reformism— progressive politicians, middle class leaders of communities of color and women’s organizations, and the labor bureaucracy. This “popular front” strategy has, in my view, undermined the ability of revolutionaries to promote mass struggles.

Most working and oppressed people, in period of low level struggle like today, accept reformist ideas. However, in periods of mass struggle, the experience of organizing collectively in the workplace and community, building solidarity with other working people, and confronting the employers and the state can lead broader and broader segments of working and oppressed people to question reformist ideas.

The forces of official reform embrace reformist politics unconditionally because their conditions of life—their job security, incomes, working conditions—do not depend upon mass struggle, but on the preservation of their organizations as organizations.

For these forces mass struggle is risky. While gains might be made, mass confrontations with the state and capital carry with them the possibility of defeat—and the destruction of the institutions which provide the forces of official reformism with their distinctive life-styles.

As a result, these social layers tend to discourage attempts by rank and file activists in workplaces and communities to prepare for struggles that confront capital and the state. Instead, they embrace “safe” methods — electing progressive officials, lobbying, and routine collective bargaining.

The paradox is that reformist strategies can not win or defend reforms. As the forces of official reformism demobilize mass struggle and disorganize networks of activists, they undermine their capacity to win or defend reforms. Especially in periods of increased competition and falling profits, capitalists become more aggressive and the forces of official reformism are unable to resist.

In fact, these forces often embrace austerity, wage cuts, and concessions in the vain hope of forestalling even greater givebacks. We have seen the capitulation of European social-democratic parties and many official Communist parties to neo-liberalism. Mass workers’ organizations in the global south—most notably the Brazilian PT and the South African CP—have undergone a similar evolution. Here in the US, we see the labor bureaucracy engaged in the deadly spiral of concession bargaining.

While short-term coalitions with the forces of official reformism are possible—and in fact unavoidable—long-term strategic alliances with these forces have undermined the revolutionary left’s ability to build struggles for reforms and promote radical and revolutionary consciousness. A new revolutionary left in the US needs to debate and discuss our relationship to the forces of official reformism—in particular the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic party and the union bureaucracy.

Solidarity advocates independent politics and democratic, “bottom up” organization in the workplace and community. We have consistently argued that participation in the Democratic party has been the graveyard of every social movement of the 20th century—and that social movement activists need to remain independent of the Democrats. As a result, we did not participate in the Jackson campaigns in 1984 and 1988, but have supported independent electoral campaigns such as Nader in 2000 and 2004 (and hopefully a McKinney campaign in 2008).

We also help build rank and file organizations that advocate democracy, solidarity and militancy in the labor movement, and cross-union networks like Labor Notes.

Discussion of the Democratic Party and the official leadership of the unions should be part of the open ended process of left refoundation/socialist regroupment.

Whether or not a common revolutionary organization can be created is not simply a matter of the good will or the effort of existing revolutionary organizations. It will also require the participation of new layers of radical and revolutionary activists—what Freedom Road calls the “social movement left.” The participation of these comrades will both encourage those already in revolutionary organizations to find ways to cooperate in practice and carry on comradely dialogue, and will bring new experiences and perspectives so necessary to any successful process of left refoundation/socialist regroupment.