Three questions of political strategy

Steve Downs

Posted September 27, 2019

Have you ever had an argument with a friend and suddenly realized that your disagreement stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that the two of you were using the same words to mean different things, or different words to mean the same thing?

As I read contributions to The Call and Jacobin, and from Solidarity members, I wonder if that doesn’t explain some of the disagreements about “reform or revolution” that have come up between some Solidarity members and some members of DSA’s Bread and Roses caucus. Framing these disagreements as a set of questions has helped me better understand the contending views.

Does “democratic road to socialism” = “parliamentary road to socialism”?

Members of Solidarity seem to think so. Consider Dan LaBotz’s article DSA Two Years Later: Where Are We At? Where Are We Headed? in New Politics from earlier this year. Discussing the perspective of supporters of The Call, he writes:

Historically the term “democratic road” implied a gradual, peaceful, electoral transition from capitalism to socialism, as opposed to a revolutionary strategy.

The Call’s rejection of reformism is belied by the commitment to “the democratic road.” As the authors know, that phrase, “the democratic road,” is identified with the post-war Social Democracies and with the parties of Eurocommunism.

Chris Maisano’s recent piece in The Call, Which Way to Socialism?, provides a clear presentation of the “democratic road to socialism” perspective. It is just as clearly, in my opinion, a “parliamentary road to socialism”, albeit, a radical version that includes mass mobilizations and “deepening democratic participation in politics and the economy and making radical changes to the state’s bureaucratic and administrative structures”.

In his article, Maisano writes,

As Poulantzas recognized, democratic socialism contains “the obvious risk — and everyone is aware of it — that the great majority of the repressive state apparatuses will polarize to the right, and therefore crush the popular movement.” This formulation doesn’t even take into account capital’s main weapon, the economic resistance and sabotage that a democratic socialist movement will face if a break with capitalism is even remotely on the cards.

This is an important recognition. Surprisingly, Maisano does not discuss what the socialists in government should/must do to respond to this. It seems that his strategy for transition to socialism is to get socialists elected to high office, backed by mass mobilizations in the street and then, when the right-wing and capital respond with the viciousness we know they will … we’ll see what we can do. To me, this is what marks his strategy as the parliamentary road. He does not have a perspective for the extra-parliamentary action that will be necessary to defend the government and push the break with capitalism forward. That is hard to accept post-Allende and the crushing of the attempt to carry out a democratic road to socialism in Chile.

What about Chile?

Although Maisano doesn’t directly address the experience and lessons of Chile, others in the Jacobin/The Call orbit have. In his New Politics article Dan links to one of the contributions, Allende and Democratic Socialism, which consists of an introduction by Ben B and Salvadore Allende’s 1970 victory speech.

Dan writes, “And the ‘democratic road’ is identified with the disastrous experience of the Chile’s ‘democratic road’ pursued by Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity government, a leadership with a failed strategy that is celebrated in the pages of The Call.” Having read the piece he provides the link to, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss what is written as simply a celebration of a failed strategy.

Ben B., the author of the piece presents several criticisms of Allende and the Popular Unity government, emphasizing Allende’s efforts to hold back the mobilizations of workers against capital. His political conclusion is,

Even with their flaws, Allende and the movement that propelled him to office are a source of deep inspiration for The Call. They show that a democratic road to socialism can gain the mass support of the working class and begin a process of transition, even if Allende’s government ultimately ended in tragedy. The Popular Unity coalition shows that once the latent power of the working class is set into motion and it begins to seriously organize itself as a class, workers are often more radical than their elected officials. We take this, too, as a reason for hope. While there is much to learn, perhaps the biggest and most obvious lesson from the Allende government is that winning elections is a necessary step on the road to socialism, but insufficient on its own. We also need working-class movements that can bolster and defend the program of a socialist government from below while cutting into the power of capital through their own initiative as well. And we need to be prepared to do everything within our power to defend a mandate once it is won against a capitalist class and right-wing forces that have no real respect for democratic legitimacy.

This is not (just) a celebration of a failed strategy. It is a celebration of an attempt to bring about a transition to socialism in a relatively advanced capitalist democracy, while pointing out the clear limits of the strategy that was pursued. For me, this raises doubts that “the democratic road to socialism” can be treated as if it is simply a rebranding of “the parliamentary road to socialism”.

Ben B’s article raises a key strategic question for those who counterpose the need for a “revolutionary” strategy to the “democratic” strategy of Jacobin/The Call. Can we envision a transition to socialism in the US (and other capitalist democracies) that will not, in its early stages, involve the election of a socialist government within the framework of actually-existing representative institutions (Congress, parliament)? If we cannot (and I can’t, which may simply show the limits of my imagination), then we need a more subtle and nuanced critique of the “democratic road to socialism” and the part a socialist government can play in advancing and defending revolution.

Supporters of the Popular Unity government of Salvadore Allende, 1970-73

Does “insurrection” = “revolution”?

The Call’s Where We Stand statement says, “we also reject a strategy of insurrection which mistakenly seeks to adopt a model from vastly different historical conditions and apply it to our situation today.” Is “insurrection” a placeholder for “revolution”? Chris Horras thinks so.

In his article Goodbye Revolution?, Horras critiques what he calls the “social democratic reformism” of Jacobin and the majority of DSA. He offers an argument for armed self-defense and insurrection, as necessary elements of a revolutionary strategy. (Maisano’s article Which Way to Socialism? is a response to Horras.)

Dan LaBotz agrees that the The Call is rejecting “revolution” when they dismiss “insurrection”, writing, “The historic alternatives are not as suggested by The Call ‘insurrection’ versus ‘the democratic road’ but ‘reform’ versus ‘revolution’…” However, instead of arguing for insurrection, as Horras does, he dismisses The Call’s mention of “insurrection” as a red-herring. Unfortunately, he clouds the issue further by treating “insurrection” as synonymous with “putsch”.

Clearly, the writers of the Where We Stand piece go out of their way to avoid the word “revolution” to describe their goal or their politics. And they caricature their critics who embrace the word when they suggest the only alternatives to their approach are “a strategy of insurrection” or “ultra-left tactics”.

Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that The Call means to reject revolution when they reject insurrection. (I’m mindful that Horras would probably argue that their intention doesn’t matter, by rejecting insurrection they are, de facto, rejecting revolution.)

I think the position of The Call is 1) we do not believe socialism will come about through the gradual accumulation of reforms, 2) we don’t think the model of insurrection derived from the Bolshevik experience necessarily applies in capitalist democracies, and 3) we think some sort of rupture with capitalism is necessary to achieve a truly democratic society, but we don’t know how that rupture will come about or what to call it.

If we agree with 1 and 2 (we do, right?), and we think the necessary rupture is a revolution, I think we could make a big contribution by expanding on what “revolutionary” politics are now and how they will help the left prepare for the needed rupture (especially in the light of Chile). Put another way, if revolution does not equal insurrection, what is revolution likely to look like in the U.S. or other capitalist democracies?

While I agree with Maisano’s critique of Horras’ take on the importance and role of left-wing armed paramilitary groups, I think Horras makes a critical point that is missing from much of the discussion of socialist transition — the question of revolution (or even a radical assault on the power of capital) will quickly become a question of civil war. This is clear from Russia to Spain to Chile to Nicaragua. Capital will defend itself by any means necessary. How to prepare for, and respond to, civil war is a fundamental question that any revolutionary strategy must, at least, acknowledge.

Does “rupture” = “revolution”?

As mentioned above, many people around B&R do seem to prefer not to use the word “revolution” when describing their politics or strategy. It’s as if it’s a little too tainted by its association with insurrection. So, the democratic socialists of Bread and Roses and Jacobin had to find a different word for what happens when a working-class government rejects the limits of capitalism and pushes forward to create a socialist state and society. Many of them have settled on “rupture”.

Again, from the Where We Stand statement in The Call:

(We) want to build a socialist party that can take advantage of a crisis of legitimacy of capitalism, when it surely arrives. A party can even help foment a crisis, through helping to build powerful movements from below — millions of people acting on their own behalf in strikes, workplace takeovers, student occupations, and mass demonstrations — and by electing a socialist government. Such mobilizations and such a government would together be able to create a rupture with the capitalist system. And since no ruling class has ever peacefully ceded power, in a transitional period a socialist government backed by popular mobilizations will have to do everything necessary to defend the mandate they have won to carry out a program of redistribution, expropriation, and democratic reform of state institutions.

It seems to me that what B&R calls a “rupture” is what most people reading this would call a “revolution”.

Interestingly, Eric Blanc, a leading member of B&R, in his remarks to the Socialism in Our Time – Historical Materialism conference seems to agree. He uses the terms “revolution” and “anti-capitalist rupture” interchangeably:

Because of these structural constraints, we need a revolution to break the economic and political power of the capitalist class…

The key question is whether you think a socialist revolution will take place against the entire state or whether you think some key institutions of the current state — e.g., democratically elected parliaments and administrations — can and should be utilized by the working class for anticapitalist rupture…

We need to participate in and identify with the democratic-socialist project of building mass working-class power and transforming the state — always with an eye on pushing in the direction of anticapitalist rupture…

Of course, we’re nowhere near a moment of revolutionary rupture in the United States.

If B&R uses “rupture” when most of us would use “revolution”, if “rupture” and “revolution” can be used interchangeably, what does B&R believe they gain by using “rupture”, instead of “revolution”? Doesn’t avoiding “revolution” when explaining what democratic socialism is imply that revolutions are, in some ways, undemocratic?


2 responses to “Three questions of political strategy”

  1. Bandula Nanakkara Avatar
    Bandula Nanakkara

    Revolution means changing over political power from capitalist class to employees who create the value. By developing co-operative enterprises to a certain extent some basis can be formed within the social structure. Bur actually to chnge the whole system either at least 50% of the economy should be governed by co-operatives. If the ruling class opposes the change then their will be a rupture or fight among the two classes. Revolution meanschanging over the power to the working class by way of taking the ownerip of meansof production.

  2. Jim Williams Avatar
    Jim Williams

    One of Allende’s problems was that Popular Unity never achieved even a majority of the vote, its peak being around 40%. Even an armed insurrection’s workers with rifles, say, would be greatly disadvantaged against tanks and planes. Of course, most of the socialists I know would not even touch a gun. A good article though.